Legal question: Can supes order Albemarle court move?

Albemarle County officials want to move their courts out of Court Square. Staff photo Albemarle County officials want to move their courts out of Court Square. Staff photo

When the Albemarle Board of Supervisors passed a 4-2 resolution on November 2 directing county staff to explore options to relocate one or both of its houses of justice from downtown’s Court Square, Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Tracci fired back with a letter questioning whether the supes even have the authority to make such a move.

The board “lacks any legal, institutional, substantive or practical basis” to make decisions about the administration of justice, wrote Tracci. “The board is a legislative body with limited executive power—it has no judicial or law enforcement authority whatsoever.”

The idea of moving Albemarle’s circuit and general district courts from Court Square has met wide opposition from those in the legal community, including both city and county prosecutors, sheriffs, clerks of court, Judge Cheryl Higgins, public defenders, Legal Aid Justice Center and the barristers who practice in city and county courts.

“The Board of Supervisors is totally ill-equipped to ascertain whether dismembering Court Square will undermine the quality of justice in our community,” says Tracci. “They are a quasi-legislative executive body with no judicial authority whatsoever and their overreach here is breathtaking.”

Bruce Williamson, chair of the Bench-Bar Relations Committee at the Charlottesville Albemarle Bar Association, says the members of the BOS are “not well-suited by their training and experience with the legal system to make decisions on the administration of justice and the people who are are the ones who signed that letter”—a missive dated November 2 that urges the board to keep county courts in Court Square.

“This has been couched as a matter of convenience for lawyers,” says Williamson. “Nothing could be further from the truth. Adding in travel time to the urban ring would increase costs, reduce the number of cases public defenders could take and keep more people incarcerated while they wait for a hearing,” he says.

Although the plan had long been to renovate the Levy Opera House across the street from the county courts, with the city pitching in $7 million, supervisors “were surprised” last summer to find the city had done nothing about parking, says Williamson, and they “were taken aback” when the city asked them to pony up $2.5 million for parking.

Earlier this year, the supes directed county staff to examine options for courts, including moving the general district court to the County Office Building on McIntire Road, as well as moving both general district and circuit court to a new county location in the urban ring, ideally with a private partnership.

“County staff is clearly in favor of tying economic development to moving the courts,” says Williamson. “For decades, [the county] has not attracted jobs. The courts should not be the engine of economic development.”

The county seat is where the circuit court is located, and to move the circuit court would require a referendum of Albemarle voters, according to code. As for moving the general district court, the answer varies, depending upon whom you ask.

A call to Supervisor Diantha McKeel resulted in a written response from County Attorney Greg Kamptner, who says Virginia code makes the Board of Supervisors responsible for providing courthouses—and for footing the bill of such facilities.

“The board will not decide whether the court facilities are to be relocated from their current location in Court Square in downtown Charlottesville,” writes Kamptner. That decision rests with the voters of Albemarle, he says. “The board’s role is to consider adopting a resolution asking the court to order that election.”

According to Williamson, to move the general district court, the BOS has to have the approval of the General Assembly.

Delegate Rob Bell refers that question to Dave Cotter in the General Assembly’s division of legal services, and Cotter gets into the weeds of murkily written legislation.

Cotter says, according to Virginia code, county supervisors don’t have the authority to move the general district court, which the law requires be located at the county seat. However, the chief judge or the presiding judge—the code lists both—can authorize an additional general district court, much as Richmond has done with additional general district courts.

Albemarle’s general district court webpage lists Judge Bob Downer as both the chief and presiding judge, and Judge William Barkley as the presiding judge. So does that mean one or both of them determine the fate of a lower court move?

“It’s not the Board of Supervisors’ decision to move the general district court,” says Cotter. “Only the chief judge can make the decision to meet somewhere in addition to the county seat.”

Confusing?

The last time this statute was interpreted by the attorney general was in 1973. Says Cotter, “A lot of this language has been sitting here and no one has been paying attention.”

Augusta County had a referendum to move its county seat from Staunton to Verona on the ballot November 8. Voters rejected that relocation.

 Correction 11/17/16: Bruce Williamson said the city wanted the county to contribute $2.5 million for parking, not $12.5 million.

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