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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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  1. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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