With all due respect to the law, there is no justice in the design of the Guilford County Courthouse.
From the day it opened on April 2, 1973, to (what time is it now?) the big fat monument to inefficiency has flummoxed and frustrated tenants and visitors alike.In November of 1973, a grand jury complained that the courthouse's jury boxes were "totally inadequate, uncomfortable and dangerous."
In October of 1980, people were tripping and falling so often that some of the plaza's concrete steps had to be remodeled at a cost of $19,000.
In May 1978, Judge Elreta Alexander threatened to jail the county commissioners if they didn't do something about overcrowding there.
In June 1980, staff and visitors were so confounded by what was where, the facility added plastic, color-coded signs at a cost of another $5,000.
In layman's terms, the place is just plain dumb.
You have to go down one floor from the Plaza Level" to get to the "Upper Ground Level."
If you are not paying close attention, you may follow an exit sign straight into a men's or ladies' room.
The stairwells between floors are so low that if you're even approaching 6 feet tall, you'll have to duck.
Much has been made in recent months of crowding and misconduct in the courthouse. But, arguably, many of those problems might have been avoided, or at least minimized, if the building simply had been built with a little more common sense in mind.
For instance, the courtrooms there may be among the worst places in the city to try to hold court. Their doors open directly into often chaotic hallways. Whenever anyone enters or leaves, a wave of noise sweeps in.
And unless you're seated near the front of the courtroom, don't even try to hear what's going on. Voices echo off the walls, making it impossible to follow the courtroom drama, even if you're interested.
So some bored people do what bored people do while waiting for their cases to be called. They talk to each other. They come and go, swinging those double doors wide open, over and over. Or they sleep. And sometimes snore.
During a recent tour, Chief District Court Judge Joseph Turner gazes toward the ceiling in Criminal Courtroom 2-A. "It seems as if sound goes up there but never comes down," he says.
Turner, who suffers from a slight hearing loss, says he sometimes can't hear lawyers and defendants. And they sometimes can't hear him.
"I can hear people whispering in the back of the room but I can't hear people right in front of me talking about their cases," he says.
Be all that as it may, not one courtroom in the Greensboro courthouse contains microphones that amplify voices (High Point's do). The only mikes to be found in the building are for recording purposes only.
Wouldn't such a sound system help? "It's been requested," Turner says.
If there's any lesson to be learned from all this, it might be that somebody ought to pay closer attention next time.
It's like a homeowner building a house, says Turner. If you don't keep close tabs during the design and construction, you'll be sorry.
Then Turner smiles weakly at a witness stand so awkwardly positioned that it's difficult for a judge to see a witness and take notes at the same time.
From certain angles, short witnesses are nearly impossible to see at all.
The judges' quarters are cramped with some offices barely the size of a walk-in closet.
Staff members are scattered in distant offices. Clerks and secretaries are often located in one corner of the building, their bosses in another.
Don't even ask Chief Public Defender Wally Harrelson about his staff's space.
As he squeezes past file cabinets and a computer printer in the hallway, Harrelson snarls, "These offices are not big enough to cuss a cat in."
But there may be hope. The county commissioners on Monday will consider buying a nearby office building, Independence Center, and moving the tax and planning offices there.
That would free the first floor of the courthouse for court business.
If the deal happens, Turner says, he would like to see three large courtrooms on the first floor for high-volume business such as criminal and traffic court.
Meanwhile, he grimaces at the reality of the present, pointing to a large trash can in a hallway. It serves as a makeshift desk for an Alcohol and Drug Services representative when she is screening potential clients.
"If you want to see a master setting for running a business," Turner says, "go somewhere else."
\ Contact Allen H. Johnson at email@example.com