Photo | Daniel Anderson / Lagniappe

Each courtroom features infrared video and sound systems, teleconferencing capabilities, secure computer networks, atomic clocks and conference rooms. Galleries can hold as many as 80 spectators.

After nearly two decades of planning, retooling and searching for funding, downtown Mobile is home to the newest federal courthouse in the United States, the centerpiece of what will soon be a $117 million state-of-the-art judicial complex.

Directly north of the existing John Archibald Campbell Courthouse, the five-story, 155,000-square-foot building takes up the entire block at the corner of St. Louis and St. Joseph streets. It will house the courts of the Southern District of Alabama and other federal agencies.

While the new building officially opened for business in July, a ceremonial grand opening will be held on Friday, Sept. 7, and feature dignitaries from all levels of government.

“The new federal courthouse in downtown Mobile is one of the finest facilities in the entire country and a key piece to the revitalization of our downtown,” U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Mobile) said. “I appreciate the work of all those who helped make the project a reality — especially Sen. Richard Shelby.”

“The opening of the new federal courthouse is a historic moment for the city of Mobile and the Southern District of Alabama,” Shelby said. “This facility is the product of many years of hard work and will continue the ongoing renaissance in downtown Mobile. It is my hope that the decisions made in this new building will uphold the rule of law, the Constitution, and the values upon which our nation was founded.”

However, the courthouse construction is only the midway point of a larger federal project being completed in two phases. Now, with the Campbell courthouse vacated, a multimillion-dollar renovation of the 80-year-old facility is already underway.

Those renovations will cost around $18 million and are expected to be completed by April 2020. When all is said and done, the renovated facility will house federal bankruptcy courts, probation offices, appeals offices and U.S. congressional offices.

Currently, the bankruptcy court and federal probation staff rent space on St. Louis Street in downtown Mobile, which costs taxpayers nearly $1 million per year — a cost that will be eliminated once the renovations at Campbell are complete.

Aside from the potential savings, the courthouse project was sought for years because of upgrades the Campbell courthouse needed in the areas of security, technology and public access.

Clerk of Court Chuck Diard told Lagniappe that once its renovation is completed, “the entire project will incorporate many court and federal functions into two more modern and secure buildings.”

What’s old is new again

Project Manager Amy Rice has been part of the team building out these facilities for years. She told Lagniappe last fall the new courthouse was designed to prioritize safety as well as public convenience while staying true to the aesthetic of Mobile’s historic downtown.

However, that wasn’t always the case. Original plans for the new courthouse, which were prepared by the Boston architectural firm Safdie Architects in 2002, laid out a larger and more modern design that would have taken up two city blocks in the same area.

If constructed as initially planned, the building would have featured a massive glass portico Rice said would have likely clashed with some of the older architectural styles in Mobile’s downtown. The earlier design also failed to gain the congressional funding needed for its construction.

“It was on the list and just never got funded, but it really wasn’t what the judges wanted in terms of a design, either,” Rice said. “I just don’t think it would have fit well in Mobile.”

After the project was scaled down, though, funding to construct the new courthouse and renovate the existing facility materialized in two separate appropriations from Congress totaling $119 million.

While initial costs were estimated at $89 million, Diard said the total wound up being closer to $101 million because of modifications approved by the General Services Administration (GSA).

Even though the cost of that particular part of the project increased, Diard noted the entire effort is still within budget.

One reduction to the overall cost of the project was the decision to scale down the size of the new building and instead renovate the existing courthouse. Rice said that idea actually grew from a suggestion made by Presiding U.S. District Judge Kristi DuBose.

“It just completely makes sense, and honestly, I think this should be used as a model going forward,” Rice said. “We planned to keep some things from [the existing] building, like our ceremonial courtroom, and we’ll also have senior judges’ chambers there for future growth, and those were all reductions in price and space.”

Diard said the same thing, noting DuBose was very engaged with keeping costs in check.

Scrapping the original plans gave developers a second chance at building a courthouse that would fit the city’s architectural themes and take advantage of a unique opportunity to create a multiblock judicial square along St. Louis Street.

To get the ball rolling, Rice said the GSA, which oversees federal land acquisition and construction projects and actually owns the courthouse complex, brought all five of the contractors that planned to submit a design for the project to Mobile before any contracts were awarded.

Rice said representatives from the city of Mobile’s Historic Development Commission worked with potential construction contractors to bring them up to speed on architecture and design seen throughout Mobile historically. The group was also taken on a historical tour of De Tonti Square to get a feel for the area.

Consequently, the façade of the sprawling building is made of Alabama limestone cut from the very same quarry in Russellville that produced the limestone for Campbell courthouse 80 years before. Rice said architects found the name of the quarry while reviewing the original designs ahead of the planned renovation.

“We were really excited when we found out it was still open and producing stone,” Rice said. “That was another nice complement to make this sort of a judiciary square here. That’s what we were trying to accomplish, and the aesthetic will be a closer match once the limestone dries out on the new building.”

While court staff and federal officials had some input on the final product, Rice said GSA tried something new when it came to selecting the building design. Instead of awarding separate contracts to construction and architectural firms, GSA opted for a “design-build format.”

In other words, the government purchased a complete package from the beginning, and while it left little wiggle room once construction began, Rice said construction was able to move much faster because there weren’t plans to develop or any subsequent bids to receive, evaluate and award.

In April 2015, the multimillion-dollar contract was awarded to a team led by Biloxi-based Yates Construction, which employed the work of the architectural firms Hartman-Cox and AECOM. After little more than three years, GSA opened the new courthouse on July 16, 2018.

Today, the new courthouse has six courtrooms — three for magistrate judges and three for district judges. The district courtrooms each have dedicated workspaces for clerks and court reporters, and galleries that can seat up to 80 people.

Magistrate courtrooms are a bit smaller but contain the exact same features, which Rice says was intentionally done so judges could transition between courtrooms more easily.

Security, public access

Mostly because of its age, working in the Campbell courthouse has presented some logistical challenges for court staff and U.S. Marshals and can cause some headaches for jurors and members of the public.

Rice said one of the main goals during development of the new courthouse was to make “a better experience for people coming to the courts.” She said they tried to do that by creating a small space for visitors to walk into before they’re screened through security and by improving interior navigation inside of the building.

“Often when you first come into a courthouse you get hit by security right when you come in the front door, but this building has a glass wall right when you walk in that kind of forces people over to security, which is tucked into the side as you come back into the lobby,” she said. “We insisted there be a space where people can get in out of the rain and the heat before they get screened. We also wanted it to be easier to find your way around, so each floor is kind of laid out the same so you don’t get lost in this maze.”

When speaking with Lagniappe last week, Diard also noted everything about the new courthouse is or will be compliant with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, which was enacted more than 50 years after construction began at the Campbell courthouse.

While access was a key component, the bigger concerns that needed addressing were security and technology. Rice said the layout in Campbell had, at times, led to defendants winding up in the same areas as judges or members of the public. That will no longer be the case, she said.

“A lot of the prisoner movement is going to be vastly improved. Court employees basically won’t see another prisoner, ever, unless it’s in the courtroom,” Rice said. “They’ll be brought in from a sally port and into their own elevator system that goes straight up to the holding cells on the [U.S.] Marshall’s floor in between each courtroom.”

The segregated areas that move prisoners through the new courthouse also include detention-grade ceilings, glazed block walls and ventilation ducts that have periodic barricades of steel bars in case a defendant were to somehow attempt an escape.

In addition to internal security, the exterior of the courthouse is also built to withstand Category 5 strength hurricane force winds, and most localized flooding shouldn’t be a problem, either, considering federal regulations require new construction projects to address stormwater management “to the maximum extent technically feasible.”

“One of the benefits of having Yates as our contractor is that they also do a lot of business here in this region of the Gulf Coast,” Rice said of the Biloxi-based construction firm. “They understand the weather, the humidity, floods and hurricanes, and that has been a big plus for us, too.”

While the Campbell courthouse had been retrofitted over time to account for newer technologies, there will be a big difference in what’s available in the new facility.

According to Diard, each courtroom will be equipped with infrared video and sound systems, teleconferencing capabilities, secure computer networks, atomic clocks and conference rooms that can be used by attorneys and judges as well as defendants and their representation.

Two-way video streaming will also be available between each courtroom and its two holding cells.

Another benefit of building a courthouse from the ground up is having the ability to logistically plan how people will move throughout the building. That was a particular challenge at times in the Campbell courthouse, which often led to problems.

Aside from prisoners parking by the judges, Rice said members of grand juries would often have to walk through public corridors to a courtroom to give their verdict to judges. In the new courthouse, though, judges are able to access the grand jury room and come to them.

“That’s the way it’s supposed to be so you’re not exposing [the grand jury],”
Rice added.

Several smaller amenities were also added to improve the experience for those serving on juries. Some of those are as simple as having a window in deliberation areas, which Campbell lacked. There are also kitchenette areas and bathrooms so jurors won’t have to traverse the public corridors.

Rice said one judge even jokingly told her they would “never get a jury to make a decision” with all of the additions in the new courthouse. However, she added that those small details really go a long way when you’re tucked in a room deliberating a case for hours.

“The difference in what we’re getting and what they’ve [had] is just incredible,” Rice added.

So far, the new courthouse has no formal name because the naming of any federal building requires action from Congress. The John Archibald Campbell Courthouse was named for the former Alabama House representative. Campbell was later appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Franklin Pierce. Though Campbell died in 1889, his name wasn’t affixed to the courthouse in Mobile until the 1980s.