Jefferson County celebrates reopening of courthouse

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For more than 150 years, if you wanted to know who practiced law in Jefferson County, you could go to the courthouse and see a ledger full of attorneys’ signatures. Before changes in the 1930s requiring attorneys to attend law school and pass the bar, all prospective lawyers had to do was be 21 years old, have the Circuit judge find them fit to practice, and sign their name in the book. Attorneys continued to sign the book after the 1930s, though maybe less frequently.

Two centuries are represented in that book, which resided in the Circuit Court until May 20, 2009, when a fire destroyed the roof and displaced those who worked in the courthouse. The book, tucked away in a drawer, survived the smoke, fire, and water damage, and after a two-year hiatus, it and all those who had to find temporary homes are now back in the Jefferson County courthouse.

The courts and government offices began moving back in at the beginning of August, and the official opening of the courthouse was Aug. 26. Many attorneys and judges from southern Indiana, along with others from throughout the state, were on hand to pay tribute to the volunteer firefighters who saved the courthouse from burning to the ground that spring evening more than two years ago.

courthouse-15col.jpg Community members gather outside of the Jefferson County courthouse Aug. 26 to honor the firefighters who saved the building and to celebrate its reopening. (IL Photo/ Jennifer Nelson)

It cost around $3 million to save the documents affected by water damage through a freezing and defrosting process. Overall, $8.5 million was spent on the rebuild, and nearly all was recovered by insurance, said County Commissioner Julie Berry. The outside looks just about the same as before the fire, but on the inside, changes have been made to make the building more accessible and environmentally friendly.

At the ceremony, Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall T. Shepard spoke about the importance of preserving courthouses and their places in society. He said that it used to be that the three tallest structures in every city or town were the church, the grain elevator, and the courthouse. He also noted that in America, we always call the buildings that house the courts and government offices the courthouse, whereas names in other English-speaking countries would emphasize the word “government.”

Jefferson Circuit Judge Ted Todd addressed the crowd at the ceremony and spoke about that historic ledger containing the attorney signatures that survived the fire. While the courthouse was being renovated, the book resided with the Jefferson County Historical Society, but a representative of the organization returned it to Judge Todd during the ceremony. Judge Todd read the crowd an order he authored in which he asked the historical society keep the book safe until it could make it back to its longtime home in the Circuit Court.

While the book was kept safe at the historical society, the courts and government offices also had to find temporary homes. When the fire first happened, Jefferson Superior Judge Alison Frazier said she didn’t expect to be out of the courthouse for as long as she was. She had only been a judge for five months, and she was still acclimating herself to her position and trying to figure out procedures when she lost her office.

She thinks somebody with a lot more experience would have known a little quicker and easier how to restart.

“I experienced a significant amount of stress trying to figure things out,” she said.

But she and Judge Todd, who’s been on the bench since 1989, were unified throughout the process and spent a lot of time working on how to keep things together, she said. They found themselves operating in different locations – although just across the street from each other – which made things more challenging.

The temporary location Judge Frazier occupied did not have a room suitable for a courtroom.

“It’s hard to conduct court and maintain the appearance of authority by the position and room if you don’t have a courtroom,” she said.

courthouse-bookopen-15col Attorney signatures in the ledger that survived the fire, including Jefferson Circuit Judge Ted Todd’s signature from 1964. (IL Photo/ Jennifer Nelson)

Security concerns were an issue. Because of the lack of traditional courtrooms, the parties were closer together and to the judge during proceedings, which could make for some tense situations. Officials at the ceremony thanked law enforcement for their assistance during the temporary operations to ensure the judge, staff, and parties were safe.

Things were not easy for Judge Todd in his temporary location either. Just like Superior Court, the Circuit Court was relocated into a much smaller space, and the Circuit Court location lacked windows. He and his staff were very happy to move back into the courthouse.

Joining him in that courthouse is the historic ledger. During the ceremony, he, Judge Frazier, and Chief Justice Shepard looked at the signatures, which stopped being recorded in 1998. Judge Todd told the crowd that he’d like for attorneys to begin signing the book again, and Vevay attorney Della Swincher became the first one to sign it after the ceremony. She said when she began practicing in the county, the fire had already happened so she hadn’t had a chance to sign the book.

It was obvious during the ceremony how happy everyone affected by the fire – from the county commissioners to county employees to the judges – were to be back in the courthouse.

“When you are in temporary quarters and operating out of cardboard boxes, I felt like a fish in the bottom of a boat and I was about to die and the fisherman decided to toss me over,” said Judge Todd. “All of a sudden it felt wonderful to have a real office again.”•


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