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Future courthouse planning features flexible hybrid courtrooms, technology

Future courthouse planning features flexible hybrid courtrooms, technology

Anticipating change and new court needs comes naturally to NCSC Senior Architect Allie McKenzie. But how do you design court spaces that won’t be built for many years?

“They can only be flexible,” she explained during a recent podcast hosted by the Ninth Judicial Circuit Court of Florida.

In NCSC’s 2020 Trends In State Courts, McKenzie co-authored “What Will Shape the Future of Courthouse Design” and outlined four trends that would likely make a significant impact on court facility planning and design:

  • the reduced need to go to a courthouse because of emerging technologies and declining caseloads;
  • the adoption of evidence-based practices, including restorative justice, increasing access to justice, and a desire to enhance public trust;
  • the evolving workforce and the skills needed, including how to attract and retain court staff by considering their generational expectations; and
  • the adaptation to global and societal changes, including climate, increased multimodal transportation options, and security.

During the article’s development, the COVID-19 outbreak was only beginning to manifest as a global pandemic. Two years later, these trends and others have evolved into a new way of doing business. So, how has the conversation changed?

“In my opinion, there is a greater sense of urgency and openness to new ways of conducting business,” McKenzie said. “Courts are seeing the benefits of technology and want to incorporate it more and more. All of our recent projects have studied how to support new operations to some degree.”

One of the team’s projects involves the build-out of a floor in a 10-year-old courthouse. An unfinished fifth floor—designed to mirror the building’s other floors with a traditional courtroom and judge’s chambers—has now been reimagined. NCSC’s team recommended splitting the space into two dynamic courtrooms that can accommodate hybrid proceedings and a variety of hearing types. Technology is planned into the design, and furnishings feature a judge’s bench that sits at eye level and movable conference tables.

“Courts can no longer question innovative concepts because they have been tested. The focus now is on implementing deliberately planned spaces with integrated technology instead of ad-hoc solutions that helped get courts through the pandemic.”

McKenzie and senior court planning analyst David Sayles offer a few considerations for effectively integrating technology into space planning:

  • The use of remote technology affects the amount of in-person participation, thus affecting the amount of physical space needed.
  • Remote proceedings provide unlimited avenues for adjudication and can eliminate the need for courtroom space.
  • Live streaming of proceedings may result in fewer in-person spectators, which in some cases can account for one-third of a courtroom’s overall size.
  • Utilizing remote proceedings reduces the number of secured holding areas needed.

The team is evaluating these aspects and others as part of its work under a State Justice Institute grant to examine sustainable court operations and the resulting space implications. Consultants are surveying court leaders to better understand needs for four types of spaces: adjudication, public, administrative, and jury. Their findings will be released this summer.

For more information about NCSC’s courthouse-planning services, contact McKenzie or Sayles or visit Courthouse Planning on the NCSC website.

Nominations open for William H. Rehnquist Award

NCSC is currently accepting nominations for the William H. Rehnquist Award for Judicial Excellence, one of our nation’s highest judicial honors. This prestigious award honors a state court judge who demonstrates the outstanding qualities of judicial excellence, including integrity, fairness, open-mindedness, knowledge of the law, professional ethics, creativity, sound judgment, intellectual courage, and decisiveness. The William H.Rehnquist Award honors judges who are taking bold steps to address a variety of issues affecting their communities. Nominations are due June 21.