By Tia Lynn Ivey
The Madison-Morgan Cultural Center will moonlight as an extension of the Morgan County Courthouse beginning in January 2021.
Morgan County government entered into a lease agreement with the cultural center, located on Main Street in Madison, to use the center’s annex facility for jury pools and other court-related business throughout 2021.
The county will be pay the cultural center $500 per day for every day used by the Morgan County Superior Court. The Morgan County Board of Commissioners (BOC) voted unanimously to approve the lease agreement with the cultural center and designate the cultural center’s annex facility a sanctioned courthouse facility.
According to Jody Higdon, superior court clerk, the main purpose of using the cultural center’s annexation building is to expedite the jury selection process. Due to the ongoing coronavirus and CDC recommended guidelines, the courthouse does not have enough room to conduct jury selections where as many as 150 potential jurors gather to be interviewed and screened to serve in trials.
According to Hidgon, the new space at the cultural center will be more efficient and productive.
“If the idea goes as planned, we will use the hall at the cultural center to do the jury selection. When 150 jurors show up, we can pick three different juries in one day. If we had to use the courthouse, we’d have to split up the jury pool and bring people in at different times to meet all the safety guidelines for the coronavirus. At the courthouse it would take three days to pick just one jury, but at the cultural center hall, we can pick three juries in just one day,” explained Higdon.
The new lease agreement is part of an effort to resume court proceedings that have been largely put on hold due to the limitations posed by the coronavirus pandemic.
“There is quite a backlog of cases,” said County Manager Adam Mestres at Tuesday’s regular meeting. “I expect the court will spend a lot of next year, and the next couple of years catching up.”
In addition to the new space at the cultural center for the Morgan County Courthouse, the judicial circuit will be employing new technology to conduct more virtual hearings, trials, and viewings when possible. The courthouse may utilize live streaming in some cases.
“We can do live streaming, but we do not intend to use it if we can not seat everyone who wants to be present for a trial comfortably and safely,” said Higdon.
The equipment to allow for Zoom calls and other virtual methods to conduct court were paid for through the CARES Act, which distributed money to counties to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus. The cultural center will provide all the chairs needed to conduct the jury pool process. Morgan County Sheriff Robert Markley has given permission for inmates to help set up and breakdown after each use of the annex hall at the cultural center. According to Higdon, the courthouse will utilize the cultural center hall mostly on Mondays.