Local government

Lack of space drives county officials to seek funds for new courthouse

VALE – The Malheur County Circuit Court long ago outgrew the available space at the courthouse and now faces a troubling scenario where major trials can only be conducted in a single courtroom, creating problems for the local judicial process.

The Malheur County Court – Judge Dan Joyce and Commissioners Ron Jacobs and Jim Mendiola – last week sent a letter to state and federal lawmakers seeking $250,000 to plan a new courthouse.

The Vale courthouse, built in 1958, houses state court services and several county offices, including the offices for the county clerk, assessor, treasurer and planning.

“Overcrowding is rampant, with courtrooms overflowing and essential security features lacking,” the letter said. “This outdated facility severely hinders the efficient administration of justice, creating delays, inefficiencies, and a disservice to all who rely on the court system.”

The circuit court has grappled with a lack of space for more than five years, said Judge Lung Hung, Malheur County Circuit Court presiding judge.

There are two courtrooms at the courthouse now. The larger courtroom can accommodate a trial but Courtroom 2 is too small for jury trials, said Hung.

That impacts the efficiency of the justice system in Malheur County, he said.

“The current courthouse is not large enough to process all of the cases the Malheur County Circuit Court gets in a timely manner. Our case counts have grown. Crime keeps going up and cases keep going up,” said Hung.

The letter outlined “inefficient cubicles” for court staff where they lack the room to

“efficiently process casework, store mountains of files, or even meet the member of the public in private,” said the letter.

Courtroom 2 at the Malheur County Courthouse is too small for a jury, creating scheduling issues regarding trials. (The Enterprise/PAT CALDWELL)

Room for juries is another problem, the letter said. Jurors often must “mingle nervously in public areas, often alongside defendants, victims, and attorneys from cases they may soon preside over.”

“They sit shoulder-to-shoulder with witnesses and may even pass in-custody defendants. This lack of privacy raises serious concerns about potential juror bias, as they may inadvertently hear information about unrelated cases that could influence their deliberations,” according to the county letter.

The circuit court also faces challenges to meet “cultural and practical needs” for non-English speakers.

The lack of a holding room for those criminal defendants scheduled to appear in court is a “critical safety concern.”
“This means inmates, including those from Snake River Correctional Institution, are currently detained in the jury room – the same space where jurors deliberate and triples as a judicial staff lunch room,” said the letter.

Hung said the circuit court also needs a third judge.

“We have a lot of cases and we need three judges. We’d like to have at least three full courtrooms,” said Hung.

Dave Goldthorpe, Malheur County district attorney, said his office can realistically expect to do one jury trial a week now only one courtroom that can seat a jury.

“The most they’ve ever done for us in a week is two (jury trials) and that is if they can be resolved in a day. It is not a very efficient way to do it. More courtrooms would allow us to resolve cases more quickly,” he said.
Hung said county officials have discussed the lack of space for “the last four or five years.”

The space problem prompted Findley and Owens to sponsor House Bill 2497 during the 2023 Legislative session. The bill funded assessments of courthouses in small counties and required the state to build new courthouses to replace ageing structures. The bill did not pass.

 “Asking Vale or Burns to put up several million dollars to build a new courthouse would be a real hardship,” he said.

The county letter was sent to state Sen. Elizabeth Steiner, D-Portland, co-chair of the Joint Committee on Ways and Means, Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, and U.S. Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Oregon.

Eric Evans, the former Malheur County Planning director, said there is a “huge space issue,” throughout the courthouse. “There is just not room to go around,” he said.

The planning office is accessible only through a matrix of hallways, tucked in the back part of the courthouse and inside a cramped office with three people.

 “There were people who would leave our office and they would be like, ‘which way is it to the front of the building again?’” said Evans.

Jacobs said he isn’t sure if plans will include a new courthouse or constructing an addition.

“I just feel like the courts are struggling so much with having sufficient space that this is just a good route to go,” he said.

Jacobs said he has no plans to seek funding from voters.

“We are running out of space, that is what the issue is,” said Joyce.

The county is also sitting on more than $10 million in federal funds. While county has used some of that money, Jacobs said the federal cash could be used in tandem with the $250,000 requested from the state for planning and design.

The first courthouse in the county was built in 1887 while the second one was constructed in 1902. The current, 80,250-square-foot courthouse was built in 1958.

Calls and texts to Owens and Findley from the Enterprise seeking comment were not returned.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected]

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