Attorneys, judges discuss Lauderdale County Courthouse security issues

Paula Merritt / The Meridian Star

The Lauderdale County Bar Association of judges and attorneys meets in the Lauderdale County Courthouse to discuss the aging structure's future.

Mississippi Court Supreme Court Associate Justice Kenny Griffis joined the Lauderdale County Bar Association on a tour of the decaying county courthouse Friday afternoon.

Another round of conversation among lawyers, prosecutors, judges and courthouse workers followed, criticizing security issues and the condition of the courthouse.

Perhaps now the Lauderdale County Board of Supervisors will take immediate action to remove workers from the 1903 courthouse as they should for safety sake, but we won’t hold our breath … except when we’re inside that building filled with mold, asbestos and lead paint chips.

Before Friday’s tour and comments, almost every grand jury over the last several years has condemned the conditions in the building and expressed concern for the safety of workers and visitors. The potentially hazardous conditions were documented in a $10,700 study conducted in 2018.

Gov. Phil Bryant and former Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr., a current candidate for governor, are among those who have stated the need to repair the courthouse or relocate.

The Meridian Star has published numerous editorials since February 2017 calling for evacuation of the building. Community members have acknowledged the need. Some have described symptoms of illness they’ve suffered while working there or serving on a grand jury.

Over the past three years, the county has spent nearly $300,000 in studies and advice, without addressing even temporary solutions to the building’s problems.

In the last couple of years, the supervisors have discussed potential moves to the old J.C. Penney space at Bonita Lakes Mall or the old federal courthouse for at least temporary relief while the old building is repaired.

Earlier this month, the supervisors announced an intent to purchase the old Village Fair Mall property near 22nd Avenue and I-20/59 for $1.25 million, with no clear public statement about what they will do with the property.

The public has expressed other ideas for that property, but previously the mall site had been mentioned as a potential home for a new county government complex.

The thought of shiny new government offices at the gateway to the city is tempting, and it may lead to the permanent solution for the courthouse. As we’ve stated previously, we’ll reserve judgment on that proposition after hearing answers to questions about what that would mean to the old courthouse and downtown.

But if that’s the decision the supervisors make, it would mean more talk, more studies, demolition and construction, all taking years before a new building would be in use.

We remind the Board of Supervisors and department heads, once again, that they are responsible for the safety of employees and visitors at the courthouse. And if they’re not worried about safety, they should be worried about litigation if someone is injured or becomes ill.

Courthouse workers expressed optimism Friday, with excitement over the possibility of moving into a new complex at the Village Fair Mall site, keeping courthouse workers together and moving just once. 

That’s understandable, but it’s not a good idea. We know change is difficult and moving more than once would be inconvenient, but addressing safety conditions is always a priority.

If the Village Fair Mall site is to be the ultimate solution, either find temporary offices now or begin removing hazards and making repairs to the old courthouse.

"The thing that really concerns me... (is that) I hope it doesn't take some calamity to occur to take action on the courthouse," former Appeals Court Judge Larry Roberts, of Meridian, said during the meeting.

We agree. No one would want to be the one to explain to the victim of "some calamity" that the problem would be fixed three years from now.

Leadership is about making difficult and sometimes unpopular decisions.

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