Rankin Chancery and Justice Courts move to new Courthouse
August 19, 2020
Rankin Chancery Court and Justice Court recently moved into the new state-of-the-art Rankin County Courthouse at 201 North Street in Brandon.
Rankin County officials hope that the building’s public accommodations combined with its technology and security features will make it a model for future courthouse construction in the state.
Rankin County Chancellor Haydn Roberts said, “The building has everything we need and more. I hope that other counties, when they are contemplating constructing a new courthouse for trial judges, will come look at this courthouse. I think it serves as a model of how to make an efficient, safe, secure courthouse.”
Chancellor Troy Odom said, “It is a jewel.”
The 55,000 square foot, two-story Courthouse has a an exterior of gray limestone and gray and brown brick. Deeply recessed glazed windows stand two stories high, providing abundant natural light inside. The architectural style is known as Contemporary Federal.
The new Courthouse cost about $20 million, said County Administrator Laura Oster. JH &H Architects of Flowood designed the building and Chris Albritton Construction of Laurel built it. Site clearing began in the fall of 2017. Move in was in July.
Court proceedings were held for the first time in the new building on July 20. Court business went on without fan-fare. There hasn’t been a ceremony or open house. That may take place later after officials devise a plan for a come and go gathering that will limit the number of people in the building at one time due to COVID-19, Judge Roberts said.
The Courthouse was built with extra space for Chancery Court and Justice Court, in anticipation of growth. Rankin County Board of Supervisors President Jay Bishop said, “We tried to look toward the future when designing this....We built it for the future too.”
The Rankin County Justice Court and the office of the Rankin County Prosecutor occupy the first floor. The largest courtroom in the new building, with a jury box and public seating capacity of 200, is the larger of two Justice Court courtrooms. The second Justice Court courtroom has a seating capacity of 88. Four Justice Court judges share the two courtrooms. There was only one courtroom for Justice Court in the former facility in the Historic Rankin County Courthouse.
The Rankin County Chancery Court and the office of the Rankin County Chancery Clerk occupy the second floor. Rankin County has three chancellors. The Courthouse has four courtrooms with four sets of chambers and staff offices. The fourth courtroom and chambers are available for visiting judges who are specially appointed to hear cases from time to time. Three Chancery courtrooms seat 40 people each. The fourth courtroom seats 60.
Priorities in the building design were security; an inviting, non-stressful environment; accessibility; and an exterior that projected the strength and durability of the justice system, said architect J. Carl Franco of JH &H Architects.
Judge Roberts said 87 security cameras cover the inside and outside of the Courthouse. During a recent tour, a deputy monitoring banks of monitors zoomed in on one to take a close look at someone near an outside door. There is restricted access to offices of judges and staff. Judges and staff park in a locked, fenced parking lot adjacent to the building.
Courthouse security is on the minds of judges across the state. Chancellor Charles Smith of Meridian was shot on the back parking lot of the Lauderdale County Courthouse on March 16.
“State trial judges need to come look at what a secure courthouse needs to look like,” Judge Roberts said.
In the large first floor Justice Court courtroom, persons in custody are separated from the judge and others attending the proceedings. Detainees participate in the proceedings through a large heavy glass window.
Justice Court Judge Whitney Adams said, “They will be separated by a glass in a room where they can see and hear and they can be seen and heard. As for as safety goes, it’s the best feature in the courtroom.”
In Chancery Court, secure holding cells are located behind the courtrooms. Prisoners who come to court for divorce, child custody or other proceedings enter the courtrooms via a back entrance.
Waiting rooms outside the second floor Chancery courtrooms are designed with the litigants in mind. Chancery Court is the family law court which deals with divorce, child custody and support and other emotionally charged issues. The waiting areas seek to mitigate conflict by giving people space. There are 13 waiting areas and meeting rooms for lawyers and litigants. Six are partitioned for semi-privacy and seven allow closed-door conferences. Each courtroom also has two witness rooms.
Chancery Clerk Larry Swales said that the waiting area in the old Chancery building was small and put people in close quarters. “You can imagine the tension if you are going through a bad divorce and there’s not a lot of room. (In the new facility) we can separate all of that. This has been a blessing.”
Swales and chancellors are also pleased to have a children’s play room among the waiting areas. They hope to reduce the stress on children who have to come to court.
The entire building has wi-fi. Each Chancery courtroom has computerized audio-visual evidence presentation capability, an 82-inch display screen, cameras to monitor proceedings and high quality audio recording. A control room and a mechanical room are off the second floor. back hallway. Acoustics include sound absorbing materials inside each courtroom and inside the walls.
“We did not have anything remotely resembling this in the old courthouse,” Judge Odom said.
The former Rankin County Chancery Building, which had a small storefront on East Government Street, was originally a grocery store. Judge Roberts said his downstairs chambers were built in what was once the grocery store loading dock. The building also formerly served as offices for an electric utility company and Brandon City Hall. Chancery Court has been there since 1994.
The new building meets requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act in all public spaces and areas for judges and staff.
The Historic Rankin County Courthouse has an elevator, but access is difficult for persons with disabilities. Justice Court Judge Richard Redfern said, “You had to get a bailiff to come down and meet you and bring you up.”
The old Chancery Building has no elevator and could not be renovated to add an elevator, Judge Roberts said.
Chancery Court and Justice Court moved from two separate buildings into one.
Judge Redfern said the higher case volume for Justice Court necessitated it being downstairs in the new building.
With as many as 250 cases set on the Justice Court docket in a single day, “to have a large courtroom is essential,” said Justice Court Judge Adams. While the second Justice Court courtroom is currently used for overflow seating due to social distancing requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic, in the future the extra courtroom will allow two Justice Court judges to hold court simultaneously.
Judge Adams said, “Justice Court probably reaches more people for Rankin County than any other court. I’m proud of the building and how it makes it easier for us to serve the people in our county.”
The new Courthouse has extra office space for Justice Court, as the needs of that court are growing, Bishop said.
The Justice Court Clerk’s office is able to accommodate more people and allow them to receive service quicker. The old office had only one service window, and people often stood in line. The new office has five service windows, although only two are currently being used due to the need for social distancing, Judge Redfern said.
In Chancery and Justice Court, computerized panels in the hallways next to each courtroom display the day’s case docket. “It lets people know they are in the right place,” Judge Adams said.
“It’s very user friendly,” Judge Redfern said.
There’s also plenty of parking space at the new building.
“The thing most exciting to me is the parking,” Judge Redfern said. “At the old courthouse, the parking was terrible. You had to park across the road and down the road and hike the hill. It’s good so that people are not coming in late.”