Judges highlight improvements at new Rutherford County Judicial Center

November 30, 2018

It has been more than six months since the grand opening of the new Rutherford County Judicial Center in Murfreesboro. The 200,000-square-foot, $73 million facility was constructed to replace the county’s old judicial building, which had failed to keep up with the needs of the rapidly growing county in recent years.

With that in mind, the state-of-the-art Judicial Center was designed not only to better accommodate an increasing population, but also to make the overall courthouse experience safer, more efficient, and more pleasant for the many judges, attorneys, staff members, and litigants involved in court business each day.

From large windows that invite natural light and diverting views of the city, to new technology in the courtrooms, to an expansive lobby area that allows for easier movement around the building, the Judicial Center is full of innovations and enhancements to better serve the administration of justice.

After several months of working there, a number of judges are ready to render their verdict on the new space: it is a major improvement in all kinds of ways.

General Sessions Judge Ben Hall McFarlin, Jr. is especially impressed with the way the Judicial Center provides a better experience for members of the public. He worked for years in the old Judicial Building, and the differences between the two are vast.

“We’ve noticed people feel more comfortable when they come into the courtroom,” he said. “There’s more room. Back where I was before there were no windows, no light, no anything. It made people a little more grumpy, more irritable.”

The Judicial Center’s generous allotments of space and natural light, though, have changed the atmosphere.

“As I sat in the courtroom today, I noticed people just looking out the window,” he said. “It gives them a space, a zone when their case is not being called up. They’re just kind of relaxing, waiting to hear their name.”

Visiting attorneys seem wowed by the new facility, as well.

“It’s always interesting seeing lawyers coming in from other counties,” Judge McFarlin said. “They look around, and they say, ‘I wish we had something like this.’”

Judge McFarlin was so excited about moving to the Judicial Center that on the center’s opening day he offered up a top 10 list of the things he would not miss about the old Judicial Building. That list consisted of such items as a lack of parking on Murfreesboro’s public square and slow-moving elevators.  

Just as he predicted, Judge McFarlin has not, in fact, missed those things after several months in the Judicial Center. On the contrary, he has adjusted quickly to his new surroundings and feels as passionately as ever about serving the people of the 16th Judicial District.

“It makes it even more enjoyable to come to work, and I never had a problem with that to start with,” he said.

Work, for Judge McFarlin, is in one of the building’s four General Sessions Courtrooms. The Judicial Center has 12 courtrooms in all, with room to build four more, if necessary. It is estimated that this should provide sufficient capacity for Rutherford County until at least 2050.

Chancellor Howard Wilson presides over one of the Judicial Center’s several trial courtrooms, located a couple of floors up from the General Sessions Courtrooms. Chancellor Wilson touted some of the technological advancements that are present in the Judicial Center’s courtrooms and which have made court proceedings run much more smoothly.

“The technology is so much better,” Chancellor Wilson said. One of the most useful new features in trial courtrooms are computer screens for jurors so that they can more easily see exhibits. There is also a screen at the bench, in the witness box, and at the podium. This allows attorneys to upload exhibits for everyone to see.

“Any document you place on the podium, I can see it, the witness can see it, and the jury can see it,” Chancellor Wilson said. “The improvement is that lawyers don’t have to ask the court to approach the witness every time they have an exhibit because they can just put it on the screen and everybody has it.”

Some tech-savvy attorneys also utilize this system to make closing arguments via a program like PowerPoint.

Volume controls are also a fixture of the new courtrooms. Judges can now adjust microphone volumes to ensure that everyone who speaks can be heard properly.

“If the witness is quiet, I can turn her mic up” for example, Chancellor Wilson said.

The cumulative result is a courtroom that operates more efficiently and effectively.

Another key component of the Judicial Center’s design that elicited praise from judges is security. The new building features carefully cordoned off circulation routes for judges, inmates, and the public. This prevents intermingling in unsecured areas.     

“It’s been a drastic improvement from our last judicial building,” General Sessions Judge Lisa A. Eischeid said. “The security of the judges and the judges’ personnel is unbelievable.”

At the old building, Judge Eischeid’s office was located on the first floor and was accessible to basically anyone. When she first moved into that office “I’d look out, and there’s the defendant I just sentenced, and there’s no security from them to me and my personnel,” Judge Eischeid recalled.

That is not the case at the Judicial Center, where judges’ chambers and staff offices are located in secure hallways that run behind the courtrooms. Those hallways are accessible only to judges and staff, who enter the hallways each day via elevators leading up from a dedicated basement parking lot.

Inmates enter the building through a loading area in the basement. They are then transported to holding cells located along a secure corridor. From these cells they are taken to the courtrooms by way of an elevator system exclusively reserved for that purpose.

In the old building, Judge Eischeid remembers seeing inmates walk past victims in the hallways. That does not happen anymore as a result of this design.

“They definitely built this building with security in mind,” she said.

For Senior Judge Don R. Ash, the Judicial Center’s main advantage is the way that it makes going to court easier for members of the public.

“I think for me the best thing is its more user-friendly,” he said. “What we’re supposed to do is serve the public. This allows us to serve the public in a safe environment, but it also gives them great access to our courtrooms.”

He points to the fleet of large elevators that lead to each level, as well as the escalators that allow people to get where they are going more quickly. He also notes the expanded security at the main entrance. The old building had just one metal detector. Multiple metal detectors at the Judicial Center speed up entry.

If anyone gets into the spacious lobby and is unsure of where to go, large flat screen monitors list which courts are in session and where those courts are located.

“I think the judges’ security is great,” Judge Ash said. “But, really the main thing for the citizens of Rutherford County is that it’s really just a great facility.”