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Commissioners turn a page on law library issue

A mundane request for a wall with a door to a seldom-used corner of the courthouse erupted into a turf battle and a heated diatribe from the county board, directed to a board-appointed committee, at Wednesday's meeting.

Commissioners officially tabled a proposal to wall off the county law library to separate it from the judges' chambers until further study is done.

The discussion of what to do with the library, and space issues facing the district judges who need more security and room for their chambers, devolved into an exasperated exchange between commissioners.

"Why is this even before us?" groused board chair Cal Johannsen. "We have a building committee. Why aren't they doing anything about this?"

Coordinator Jack Paul said it's a bit more complicated than a simple decision of where judges and libraries will move. Paul, a member of the building committee that meets in closed session, said that group's mission is one of space issues overall.

The security issues were broached by the court administrator and judges, who are state employees residing in the county courthouse. Access to the law library, which is tucked away in a back room of the courthouse, is through a locked door and a hallway that passes by the judges' offices.

Although theoretically accessible to the public, there is some concern that public access to the room, could make judges vulnerable to a disgruntled defendant trying to research his or her own case. That prompted the request for a door to separate the areas.

But the secondary issue is that the judges don't have enough room to meet with parties in a lawsuit if more than a couple attorneys are involved. District Judge Robert Tiffany would like to move into the space where the current law library is located. That would necessitate relocating the law library.

Johannsen, his frustration evident, once again questioned why the issue was before the board when other committees would be better suited to sort it out.

Paul said in addition to the building committee a law library committee is involved. That committee wants to make the library more accessible to the public, since it's funded with taxpayer dollars.

Its annual budget is $25,700. Of that sum, $17,000 comes from traffic fines. The bulk of the budget, $23,000, goes to reference law books including state statutes and case law books. A law clerk assigned to the judges maintains the library.

"We hate to have a library that no one uses," commissioner Lyle Robinson said. "We wanted to move it to the public library but there was no room." Robinson said a sign-in procedure at the clerk's office might be too intimidating for a defendant, so easier public access should be a priority, but without endangering the judges.

Currently, the library gets only sporadic use by the public and is mostly used by attorneys to research cases and meet with clients. Robinson feels that the library is a valuable, if underused, county benefit.