Courthouse Construction in the Commonwealth

Article excerpt

Fifty years ago, Harry M. Caudill, a lawyer from Whitesburg, Kentucky, wrote the book Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area. (1) The book brought national attention to Appalachia--a part of the country few Americans had ever considered--with bleak images of the economic and environmental damage plaguing the region. (2) In chapter sixteen, "From Bust to Boom Again," Caudill colorfully described the state of public facilities in Appalachia during the era following the Great Depression and World War II as being "deteriorated to a level so low they could scarcely be imagined as existing in a civilized country." (3)

Most significant to this article is Caudill's depiction of county courthouses, which he described as:

   crumbling, dilapidated structures which would have been condemned
   as threats to public safety in any of the nation's major cities.
   Some leaked like sieves and all of them were tobacco-stained and
   filthy. Year after year they crumbled and moldered without even
   rudimentary maintenance. Their custody was vested in elected
   jailers who saw little need for windows clean enough to permit the
   sun's rays to filter through. (4)

Unfortunately, Caudill's dreary description of county courthouses was not limited to the Appalachian region of Eastern Kentucky; nor was it limited to the post-war era of the late 1940s and 1950s. As recently as the past decade, many of Kentucky's decaying courthouses threatened the health and safety of the employees and public who entered the buildings each day. Among the most noteworthy anecdotes is a story about a courthouse that was without an operating restroom, forcing employees and the public to use the facilities across the street at a fast food restaurant. More than one courthouse lacked an elevator, requiring disabled litigants to be carried up the stairs to the courtroom. (5) One courthouse attic was so infested with pigeons that the ceiling collapsed under the weight of bird droppings.

The Commonwealth of Kentucky is home to 120 counties (6) within the 40,395 square miles of its borders. (7) Before it became a state in 1792, Kentucky was the westernmost county in Virginia. (8) So it was only natural that Kentucky, like Virginia, would "cling to [the] most English of governmental divisions"--the county. (9) Each county operates as its own governmental unit, run by officials elected by the voters of the county. From 1792 until 1976, each county also had its own court system, which, over time, resulted in a "patchwork of ... courts with overlapping jurisdiction, uneven justice around the state, and a growing backlog of appellate cases." (10)

In 1974, the Kentucky General Assembly took the bold move of reforming the court system through passage of the Judicial Article. (11) The measure transformed Kentucky's court system through a series of constitutional amendments that were approved by the voters in November 1975 and became law in 1976. (12) Most significant among the amendments was the change from a county-based court system to a unified, statewide system, with a central administrative office. The Chief Justice of the Commonwealth was deemed "the executive head of the Court of Justice," (13) with authority to delegate the supervision of court "accommodations" to the "administrative director of the courts or to his administrative assistants." (14) The Kentucky Administrative Office of the Courts ("AOC") was created "to serve as the staff for the Chief Justice in executing the policies and programs of the Court of Justice." (15)

Before unification of the court system, counties were solely responsible for the construction and maintenance of court facilities. More than four hundred courthouses were built during this time, ranging in design from the original log structures of the late 1700s to the elaborate Italianate style architecture of the 1850s and the art deco, Public Works Administration buildings of the New Deal era. …