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News / Clark County News

Change coming to Clark County court system as it prepares for growth

District Court will be moving out of lower levels of courthouse

By Becca Robbins, Columbian staff reporter
Published: April 26, 2024, 6:08am

Clark County’s criminal justice hub in downtown Vancouver is slated to look different by the end of 2025 as the county prepares for growth in the court system.

After lengthy discussions — with judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, support staff, clerks, corrections officers, advocates and others — county officials have come up with a plan that involves moving Clark County District Court out of the lower levels of the courthouse, along with other changes.

The move comes while the county prepares to add a 12th Superior Court judge. It also comes on the heels of the largest single year of growth in District Court, according to District Court Administrator Bryan Farrell.

“We’re growing in both courts without any space right now for either bench to expand,” Deputy County Manager Amber Emery said. “When we’re looking at future planning, we need to build space in where we can for both benches, because our population is not slowing down.”

The county is already poised to renovate the aged Clark County Jail next door to the courthouse. As part of that, county officials plan to find a new facility for sheriff’s office administrative services that are currently housed in the complex. Additionally, the county is deciding where to house the new public defense office, Emery said.

In August, the Clark County Council signed a 20-year lease for the former Vancouver City Hall building at 210 E. 13th St. At the time, county officials envisioned that family court, which is currently in an annex across 11th Street from the courthouse, and the Children’s Justice Center would occupy the building. The county’s lease on the annex building ends next year. When officials began working with architects and engineers on retrofitting the former City Hall building, they realized that wouldn’t be the best use of the space, Emery said.

Instead, the county has begun moving the Children’s Justice Center into the second floor of the Dolle building at 500 W. Eighth St.

Emery said staff paused to reevaluate the plan for the former City Hall building, and they approached District Court officials about relocating their operations there. Farrell said District Court staffers took four months to talk with architects about the court’s needs and the logistics of the space. Eventually, he said, they decided to go ahead with the move.

“Ultimately, just a couple of weeks ago, the bench, all of the judges, decided that it would be a really great opportunity for us to move into that space,” Farrell said.

The move likely won’t happen for another year and a half, Emery said.

Relocating District Court means family court can move into the main courthouse at 1200 Franklin St., putting more Superior Court services under one roof.

Another court service, probation and pre-trial services, will also move out of the basement of the jail and across the street into the Public Service Center at 1300 Franklin St. Farrell explained that it was important to ensure those services would remain close to Superior Court, which heavily uses them. That move is slated to be done by the end of the year.

Emery noted the importance of law and justice services, which draw about 70 percent of the county’s general fund budget. She said it’s crucial that the services have adequate facilities that meet the modern needs of the fifth-most-populous county in the state in ways the current setup can’t.

Courts are increasingly relying on technology, whether to conduct virtual hearings or present digital evidence during trials, such as footage from police body cameras.

Farrell noted that the flexibility of the new space means staff can better meet the needs of people who come to District Court. It also provides new opportunities for helping people, such as new payment methods or introducing kiosks instead of making people wait in long lines to speak to swamped staffers.

“Even though we have a great system in place here, there were limitations in terms of where you can drill holes in the wall to run cabling, or where you can place a TV or a monitor or any of those things,” Farrell said. “This new building will give us the ability to reimagine all of that and hopefully get the things that we truly need.”

Presiding District Court Judge Kristen Parcher said she’s excited about the additional space. Although each of the six District Court judges and two commissioners have their own courtrooms, some don’t have spaces for juries or have small galleries for public seating.

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“One of the things we lack here is the ability for attorneys to kind of have space to meet, and we don’t have a lot of space for people waiting for court or waiting for different services,” Parcher said. “So we’re excited about being able to design it in a way that just makes people safe and a little more efficient.”

But it’ll be strange, Parcher said, for employees to no longer come to the main courthouse for work.

“It’s hard. This is also a historic courthouse that we all grew up practicing in,” she said. “It’s bittersweet in that sense to leave our historic Clark County Courthouse, but it’s really exciting to have a new space that’s designed for exactly what we need.”

Parcher anticipates there will be an adjustment period after the move for attorneys, defendants and staffers, so the bench is prepared to offer people grace about running late for hearings, she said. Farrell also highlighted the access of the former City Hall building to public transportation.

“Our biggest goal is always going to be access to justice,” Parcher said. “We’re not going to punish people for not knowing that we moved buildings, especially when we’ve been (at the courthouse) for a long time.”