Thursday, Dec. 6, 2007 | 7:12 a.m.
The county courthouse in downtown Las Vegas is only two years old, yet it is already too small to handle the judicial demands of an exploding population, and accordingly, the mounting caseloads.
Although county officials knew the Regional Justice Center was tight on space the day it opened, there is still no definitive plan to expand the complex - and the old courthouse two blocks away apparently isn't an option either. Save for occasional police or fire training, the old courthouse has been abandoned, rotting near the blight that has already dotted Las Vegas' downtown.
"If (people) can't get divorced in less than a year ... if businesses can't get disputes done in a timely manner, it hurts the whole community," said Chief Judge Kathy Hardcastle, who forecasts "assembly line-type" justice in 2011 if the courthouse is not expanded. The center has 18 floors and about 711,500 square feet.
Six new District Court judges are scheduled to join the bench in 2009.
Hardcastle would like Clark County to build a second tower on the Regional Justice Center's parking lot as well as a new parking structure, creating a campus. Court officials had hoped to have an annex built and operational this year, but say they could hold off until 2011 by leasing space elsewhere downtown and adding rooms at the off-site Family Court.
"We already have the highest caseloads," Hardcastle said. "We can't shortchange (the public) any more."
Often, six judges at the justice center are assigned to four courtrooms.
"There will be too many cases and too few courtrooms," said Chuck Short, the court's administrator. "It's just like a highway clogging with cars."
The region's population is expected to rise about 56 percent from 2005 to 2025, corresponding to an expected 72 percent to 84 percent surge in caseloads.
As a way to maximize use of existing space at the $185 �million center, some county officials have proposed holding a night and weekend court there. That idea is being studied, judges say.
Because the county hasn't commissioned a design for another center - or sought cost projections - it seems doubtful a tower could be operational by the next decade.
A $1 million study analyzing the needs of several county departments was completed 18 months ago. It proposed a 19-floor tower that some believe would cost at least $200 million. It would have more square footage than the new courthouse and could be built within a three-block radius of the center, according to the March 2006 analysis.
But so far there has been little if any progress, possibly because the study projected a serious need in 2015.
"I get kind of emotional about this," Short said. "This (analysis) has been sitting on the shelf for 18 months. It's frustrating."
A seeming alternative to the tower proposal would be to refurbish the county's old courthouse, built in 1952.
Some residents confuse the old building with the existing courthouse, partly because some Web sites say it is. A hastily scribbled note on a dry-erase board posted at the old courthouse's entrance announces the existence of the 25-month-old Regional Justice Center down the road.
The courtrooms at the old building are fairly intact - even with the patchwork carpeting and the occasional trash bin collecting dripping water - and some nameplates of judges remain outside double wooden doors. The marriage license office still has the cubicles Britney Spears visited when she got hitched, temporarily, to childhood friend Jason Alexander in January 2004.
Yet, remodeling the old courthouse is an alternative the county is unlikely to consider.
"The building I don't think is usable," said Michael Green, assistant director of the county's Department of Real Property Management.
Upkeep of the building's heating, air conditioning, roofs, water supply, electrical system and sewer lines proved to be too expensive when the building was in use. Now that it's out of service, it would have to be retrofitted to meet today's building standards, judges say.
Asbestos abounds at the old courthouse. Pipes in the building, which was expanded in the 1960s and again in the early 1980s, have been disintegrating or corroding for years, causing water leaks in courtrooms, corridors and the boiler room.
"I don't know how smart it is to use scarce taxpayer dollars on a building from the '50s," Short said.
Green estimates the cost to do so would be higher than that of razing it and building a courthouse annex.
But again, cost projections have yet to be prepared.
As an interim solution, the Regional Justice Center has proposed a $14.4 million plan that would include adding family courtrooms off-site and moving two judges and their staff to a renovated Phoenix Building.
Another option to maximize use of existing space is night or weekend court. That plan is favored by some county commissioners; so far officials at the Regional Justice Center are skeptical but haven't ruled it out. Some judges think the overhead of employing judges and their staffs at night could be exorbitant.
"Where are we going to get the capital?" asked T. Arthur Ritchie Jr., the Family Court's presiding judge, who is studying the matter for the center.
Judges have begun polling residents and attorneys to see whether there is demand for night and weekend court.
Over the years, the site of the old courthouse on South Third Street - not the building itself - has been considered for use as administrative offices for Metro Police, a jail or possibly both. At one point, officials pondered selling the site to developers.
Now, what will become of the old courthouse site is unclear.
The county jail was based there once; remnants of a fenced-in exercise area for prisoners now make up a mostly barren parking structure.
A tunnel linking the old courthouse to the new jail is intact but locked shut, Green said. So it's possible it could again be employed if Metro Police offices or a court annex is built on the site.
One block away, the Bridger Building also sits empty, more than a decade after being decommissioned by the county. The county's former government center, the Bridger also is obsolete, Green said. Black mold and asbestos are present.
Officials never intended to own the vacated building this long, but efforts to sell it failed long ago.
Some county officials recently proposed an $80 �million government office building for Bridger and are considering replacing it with a parking lot as either a temporary or permanent solution to the blight it creates.
In the past year, the abandoned Bridger and courthouse buildings haven't proved to be serious magnets for crime, Metro Police say.
There were seven incidents at each building in that time, including stolen vehicles, domestic disputes and various disturbances, but no complaints about vagrants.