Rhea County’s Circuit, Chancery, and General Sessions Courts officially have a new home now that work is complete on the state-of-the-art Rhea County Justice Center.
The 94,000-square-foot Justice Center replaced the historic Rhea County Courthouse as the center of the county’s judicial operations. The old courthouse, built in 1891, is famous as the site of the Scopes Trial and houses a museum dedicated to the trial. The new Justice Center was built about 3 miles north of the historic courthouse, on the site of the former Rhea Medical Center.
The Rhea County Justice Center boasts a number of technological and security-related upgrades that will make court run more safely and more smoothly for judges, staff, and court users.
“To say we’re excited is an understatement,” Twelfth Judicial District Chancellor Melissa Blevins-Willis said. “The leaders in Rhea County have invested an immeasurable amount of time in the development and design of the new Justice Center. Not only is the facility equipped with the tech we’ve been lacking for some time, but most importantly it’s a secure facility that operates to keep the citizens of Rhea County safe as well as the staff at the courthouse.”
Judge Thomas A. Graham elaborated on how the layout of the new building enhances security for people both inside and outside the courtroom.
“It’s a major improvement,” he said. “At the old courthouse, we had to walk people from the jail across the street and through the audience on the first floor and up to the second floor and across the middle of the courtroom. There was no place to house them except for some chairs on the side of the courtroom. Now there is a secured corridor from the jail to the courtroom that the public doesn’t have access to.”
Judges’ chambers are also in a secure area in the Justice Center, inaccessible to the public who enters courtrooms from a different corridor.
The public also goes through a central security checkpoint upon entrance to the building. Judges and staff enter from a separate secured, gated parking area.
In addition to greater security, the Justice Center also offers enhanced courtroom technology. That is much needed, the judges said.
“The Justice Center is equipped with so many things that have been lacking for a long time,” Chancellor Blevins-Willis said. “Upstairs in the old courthouse we don’t even have consistent internet all the time, which has been challenging, especially during the pandemic.”
Judge Graham said he was eagerly anticipating upgraded audio and video capabilities. That was a point raised, too, by Chancellor-Blevins-Willis who said that new video technology will make certain proceedings in her courtroom are much more efficient. She specifically raised the example of cases involving land disputes. Her old courtroom lacked equipment to easily visualize things like boundary lines, which sometimes left witnesses with the task of trying to describe their location.
“With new technology we can project those things up on the wall so everyone can see them in real time,” she said.
While greater security and advanced technology are two of the Justice Center’s biggest benefits, the building’s greater size is another. The old courthouse, for all its charm, could be cramped. Not only that, its smaller size was in many ways limiting.
“There have been times where we’ve had to make adjustments to scheduling because we didn’t have enough space,” Chancellor Blevins-Willis said. “I could probably fit my old courtroom four times in the new courtroom.”
Her old courtroom also did not even have a witness box. Witnesses would testify from a front row bench that resembled a church pew.
The increased size of the building also increases the amount of court business that can take place on any given day.
“In the Justice Center we have the possibility of two juried courtrooms,” Judge Graham said. That is because the old courthouse, unlike the new one, only had one jury box. The capability to hold two jury trials running concurrently will be a welcome change after years of only being able to have one at a time.
Judge Graham has been on the bench since 1990, and has been working in the old Rhea County Courthouse for three decades. While he enjoyed the historic aspect of the building, he said he was not too sentimental about leaving it behind.
“To do your job you need a facility much better than they designed back in the late 1800s,” he said. “It has long outlived its life.”
Chancellor Blevins-Willis called the move “bittersweet,” but said the Justice Center will undoubtedly provide better services for the public.
“The picturesque charm, the history, and all of those things will be missed,” she said. “I feel like every time I go into that courthouse I step back into history in large part. When I went in I had a sense of pride in holding court where all of these great jurists had been seated. But the historic feelings are not going away. The courthouse is still going to be there. It’s a welcome change.”
In addition to the courtrooms, the Justice Center will also be home to the Rhea County Sheriff’s Department and a new county jail, which can house 342 inmates. Other parts of the building will be rented out by a variety of different agencies, providing room for the Tennessee Highway Patrol, public defenders, probation, and parole offices.
Rhea County Commissioner Jim Vincent said that the county is extremely proud of the new building, which came in on time and, at a total cost of around $23.6 million, under budget.