Suffolk court faces shutdown, maybe for good
Mass. courthouses need vast, costly fixes
Almost 10 years after the completion of massive repairs at the Suffolk Superior Courthouse — a renovation project that displaced dozens of clerks, judges, and lawyers — officials say one of the state’s largest and busiest court buildings may have to close again, perhaps for good.
The proposal is one result of a sweeping study of the 101 courthouses across the state, many of which are overcrowded and rundown. But the notion of shutting down the venerable Suffolk courthouse, a stately example of art deco architecture built in the 1930s, has workers there anxious about the future of the building in downtown Boston.
“It’s old and it’s revered,” Suffolk Clerk for Civil Business Michael Joseph Donovan said. “This is the home for the legal community.”
Massachusetts Trial Court officials said they have been examining all the state’s courthouses to determine the needs of the buildings, some of which were built in the 19th century and are in desperate need of updates, major repairs and, in some cases, replacement.
In Quincy District Court, for example, psychologists tasked with interviewing addicts and mentally ill defendants work in a tiny trailer with a rusted tin roof and no toilets. At Springfield District Court, water leaks into the district attorney’s office and carpets have been ruined.
“Our fear and conviction is that the capital needs of the 101 courthouses are very, very large and we’re very concerned about that,” said Trial Court Administrator Harry Spence, who has traversed the state to visit the buildings. “We’re trying to figure out what do we think is a reasonable, affordable future for the court system.”
At the Suffolk courthouse, a 24-story high-rise, elevators break down continually, and on rainy, windy days water seeps in through the windows.
“The Trial Court will have to vacate the Suffolk High Rise to rehabilitate or replace it,” Spence said. “The building envelope is failing, so weatherization is a serious problem. ... Water comes in through the exposed bricks. This causes water to get inside the building and to travel to office spaces and courtrooms.”
Clerks and security officers have become stuck in the elevators, which were built when the building was constructed and are especially difficult to fix because replacement parts are no longer available.
“We manage to keep it together with chewing gum and bailing wire,” Spence said.
Spence said there is no timetable yet for potential projects or estimates for the cost of upgrading old courthouses and building new ones.
But a look at other courthouses approved for construction gives an idea of how costly the endeavor could be: In Greenfield, a new trial court expected to open in 2016 is estimated at $60 million; in Salem, renovations for a 100-year-old courthouse are expected to cost $55 million; and in Lowell, a 16-courtroom judicial complex touted as the future of energy-efficient government buildings is projected to cost $175 million.
The Trial Court has hired a consultant to draft a report detailing problems at the other state facilities and possible solutions that will not be ready until at least February. Even then, the Legislature will have to approve bond bills for any construction.
But lawyers and judges said they are worried about how an extended period of construction at the Superior Court might affect access to justice.
One plan calls for shutting down the courthouse and temporarily moving all civil and criminal matters across the county line to Malden, a possibility that Spence said is remote.
Still, even the outside chance that court business will move from a downtown location to Middlesex County is extremely troubling, said Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, whose office prosecutes criminal cases in Boston, Chelsea, Revere, and Winthrop.
“We serve victims and they are the ones that would be most negatively impacted should this move occur,” he said. “This is an ill-conceived move on its face. We’re not talking about mere inconvenience here but enormous costs and hurdles for victims, witnesses, police officers, and jurors to take their rightful place in the justice system.”
Spence declined to identify the precise Malden location or why it was considered as a possible space to move Suffolk Superior Court business.
“As we have delved into the complexities of temporarily relocating the Suffolk High Rise, it became clear that the Malden location presents various challenges,” he said. “While it is still a possibility, it is just one of numerous options we are examining.”
In 1999, Suffolk Superior Court employees were forced to move from the building to the federal courthouse in Post Office Square because of a toxic waterproofing chemical that sickened dozens of employees.
In 2005, the building reopened after undergoing $40 million in renovations.
Even then, state officials warned that the building may have to come down eventually.
At nearly 400,000 square feet and with 26 courtrooms, the Suffolk high-rise is the third largest courthouse in the state and where the bulk of its murder cases are tried. Located in Government Center, it is near several MBTA train and bus lines, ideal for Suffolk residents who report there for jury duty or witnesses and victims called to testify.
The neighboring John Adams Courthouse, which houses the Supreme Judicial Court, was restored to its former glory in 2005 through a $150 million renovation project. The courthouse, which also houses the state Appeals Court, would not be affected by the closing of the Suffolk high-rise.
RicciGreene Associates, a New York-based architectural firm that specializes in designing courthouses, is the consultant hired to study the courthouses. The state Division of Capital Asset Management, which oversees government properties, is paying the firm $750,000 for an analysis of the buildings and recommendations.
“The core master plan is what is going to give us a road map for what we need to prioritize,” said John Bello, the head of facilities for the Trial Court.
At Quincy District Court, where Judge Mark Coven has been first justice since 2000, the need for improvements is great. The 36,204-square-feet courthouse was built in 1972 and is so cramped for space, employees use back staircases to store paper, old typewriters, and filing cabinets.
On a recent morning, at least 100 people were crammed into the second-floor lobby, waiting for their cases to be called.
The drop ceiling was stained from past water damage, lawyers and clients practically yelled at each other to be heard over the din, and jurors waited in a small room about 15 feet from the only elevator in the building.
Prisoners are regularly brought up that elevator and pass right by the jury room, Coven said.
“We’ve had criminal defendants put their heads in and say they’re not guilty,” Coven said.
During a recent tour of the courthouse with a reporter, Coven looked around the lobby.
“To me, it’s all about the human element,” he said. “There, you have people who may be getting evicted. Over there, you have people dealing with addiction. And this is the environment we’re putting them in.”