New Duval Courty Courthouse opens

First hearings in new $350 million building take place Monday

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Court is back in session. One month after the judicial branch moved out of the old Bay Street courthouse, the new Duval County Courthouse opened to the public Monday morning.

Seven years overdue and millions of dollars over-budget, the new home to Jacksonville's judicial system has finally reached its grand opening.

"I consider it a great honor to be one of the first judges to be in such a beautiful, wonderful building," Circuit Court Judge Virginia Norton said Sunday.

Other judges and courthouse employees have spent the past week moving into their offices and preparing the courthouse for the public.

The courthouse missed its original opening date after a series of failed fire safety inspections.

Clerk of Courts Jim Fuller said his staff is ready to get back to work.

"Everybody's ready. We have jurors coming in, 500 jurors coming in. We'll have people in the lobby that will direct people to the different places they need to go," Fuller said.

SLIDESHOWS: Opening dayInside the new Duval County Courthouse

Fuller's office has been doing business even through all the delays: three weeks of no courthouse, then five days of going back to the old one. The city and builder, Turner Construction, took a lot of heat for moving out of the original courthouse before the new one was deemed safe to open.

"We're in, we're up and running. We want to serve the public. We want to make it easy for people to come to the courthouse and get their work done," Fuller said. "That's my job and I'll leave the rest of the stuff up to the City Council and the mayor about who did what when."

Channel 4 was escorted through the $350 million, 800,000-square-foot building, entering through a security vestibule that leads to an atrium soaring seven floors.

The Clerk of Courts offices take up the entire first floor and share part of the second with the jury selection room, a cafeteria and a few family courtrooms.

The third through sixth floors contain dozens of courtrooms: juvenile, family, civil and criminal. The judges' chambers and hearing rooms take up the top floor.

The building approved by voters more than a decade ago has been controversial for its delays and ballooning costs.

Those going into the new courthouse Monday first walked by a handful of protesters outside -- those upset with the previous sentence of Marissa Alexander, the woman who tried to use a "stand your ground" defense without success.

Once inside, it was a courthouse in full operation. At 8 a.m. Monday, the first hearing in the new building was held. It was an adoption case before Judge David Gooding, where one boy was adopted into a family of 11 children. He had eight of his new brothers and sisters there.

"Start the courthouse right with a blessing event. You can't get any better than that," said Teresa McMillen, the mother of the adopted child.

"I intentionally wanted it to be an adoption," Gooding said of the first hearing in the new courthouse. "I wanted to show that we do positive things in this building. Every time we have a hearing, we are not sentencing someone to death. We are not separating children from one another. We do do good things for the community."

Aside from the hearing, there were those who were confused inside, not sure where to go in the new facility.

"Well, I am trying to find the Clerk of the Courts to file some child support papers, and everyone I ask tells me somewhere else to go," said Kevin Wolfe. "Nobody knows where anything is at, even the people that work here."

And with any new building, not everything worked right. There were still some problems involving construction. The city and the contractors were dealing with things like bathrooms that don't work and general repairs that need to be made. But overall, the reviews were positive.

In one room, nearly 500 potential jurors gathered to find out if they would be used in a case this week.

For State Attorney Angela Corey, who's been critical of the new courthouse and the fact that the state attorney's offices weren't ready, she had a different outlook Monday.

"Oh my God, we are so excited. This place is just beautiful," Corey said. "It's so clean and so functional. All the things we needed in the old courthouse are now here. For example, space for us to meet with witnesses and victims, space to spread out and do our jobs, technology needed for a long time to convey to the jury. It's clean, it's beautiful. Very appreciative."

Public Defender Melina Buncom said she was getting used to it the new courthouse, but she's not real happy with the way she now has to speak with her client before a hearing. It's one person in a room where she has to talk with him on the phone.

"To see a client is a little more complicated," Buncom said. "You have to wait for them to be called into a conference room. That was a little more tedious than it usually is."

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