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Court in session at new Sumter facility

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

AMERICUS -- When Rucker Smith, chief judge of Superior Courts of the Southwestern Judicial Circuit, sent the jury out to deliberate last week during the first jury trial held in the recently completed $12 million Sumter County Courthouse, a complication emerged.

"There was no furniture in the jury room," a bemused Smith said as he waited for a call from the jury in his spacious new courthouse office Wednesday. "When construction changes pushed the courthouse over budget and cuts were made, furniture was one of the first things to go."

Sumter officials now housed in the courthouse are still ironing out such kinks -- and still unloading boxes -- but you won't hear many complaints about the new digs. The special-purpose local-option sales tax financed facility offers state-of-the-art amenities that are a far cry above those of the circa 1960s courthouse that served the community until a couple of months ago.

"It's a tremendous change, and I anticipate a much more efficient court system because of it," said Smith, who was first elected to serve the six-county Southwest Judicial Circuit in 1992 and became chief judge in 2000. "The beautiful thing about it is that this building was constructed to be in service for 100 years.

"I'll be in this office for maybe 10 more years, and it's a good feeling to know that in 70 years someone who hasn't even been born yet will be here."

OK'd by a sales tax referendum about five years ago, the new four-story Sumter Courthouse was built by Atlanta-based Rosser International. In addition to providing courtroom space for superior, state, juvenile and magistrate courts, the facility also houses judges' offices and a meeting room for the Sumter County Board of Commissioners, as well as office space for the county administrator, tax commissioner, county clerk and tax assessor, and human resources, elections and voter registration, finance and code enforcement departments.

The Civil Division of the Sumter Sheriff's Department is also located on the ground floor of the courthouse, which Sgt. Tony Woodall says allows for the best in security while transporting prisoners to and from court.

"The difference here and at the old facility is like night and day," said Woodall, a 13-year law enforcement veteran who has been with the Sumter department for five years. "With the camera security system and the inmate elevators just inside the sally port, the facility is as secure as it can be.

"The inmates have no opportunity to see the public until they're taken into the courtroom. And we bring all inmates in -- male, female, adult and juvenile -- in chains until just before they go into the courtroom."

Woodall helped negotiate for and plan a 40-camera security system that covers pretty much the entire courthouse, and security is particularly heavy around the inmate entry and exit area. There are also eight holding cells in the facility.

"We put a lot of time and effort into planning for our facility, and I've been very pleased with the way our people have adjusted," he said. "I honestly didn't expect it to be like this; I expected more problems. But after going through the first trial, I couldn't be prouder."

Even with the furniture issue and a punch list of minor items that must be addressed, the Sumter Courthouse is getting pretty much glowing reviews all around.

"It's certainly a much nicer facility for us," Clerk of Superior Court Nancy Smith said. "It's much more roomy; we're not all on top of each other like we were before."

Circuit Court Administrator Lynn Ansley, an Americus native who may have been more deeply involved with the courthouse project than anyone outside the construction and architectural firms that built it, said most of the county and state employees housed in the facility have adapted to their individual concerns.

"We all understand that there's a budget crunch," she said. "Things are tight, so we're all doing the best we can to adapt. I don't think you'll find many folks, though, who aren't happy to be in the new facility.

"Everything from the planning to the construction of the courthouse was meticulously carried out. I think it's a facility the people of the county will be proud of as well."

And, as Judge Smith notes, having such a facility can help bring young, talented professionals to the area.

"It's like doctors come to Albany because of Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital," he said. "I think we've had some young people who come here who like the more relaxed atmosphere in this great facility."

Alicia Page, a young Duluth attorney who was sworn in to the Georgia Bar by Smith on Nov. 10 and who is now serving a clerkship for the Southwestern Judicial Circuit, backs up Smith's claim.

"There's no way I could have had as rich an experience in the Atlanta court system," she said. "A lot of clerkships allow you to only dabble in law. I've been fully exposed here, and I love it.

"I feel very much at home here."