Officials, SC Chief Justice celebrate Courthouse reopening
by Robert Joseph Baker | December 3, 2015 1:04 am
Last Updated: December 2, 2015 at 4:42 pm
When she appeared before Clarendon County Council earlier this year to outline her office’s budget needs for the 2015-16 fiscal year, Clarendon County Clerk of Court Beulah Roberts had just one request.
“They asked me what I needed, and I told them I was ready to come back home,” she said.
Roberts’ office “came back home” to the Clarendon County Courthouse in August, along with the 3rd Circuit Solicitor’s and Public Defender’s offices and those of 3rd Circuit Judge R. Ferrell Cothran.
On Sunday, officials with those offices welcomed S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal and others to celebrate the grand re-opening of the 106-year-old building, which was renovated to the tune of $6 million from May 2013 to July 2015.
“It has been quite a journey,” Roberts said. “We were out of this building for two years, four months and 11 days.”
Roberts, her staff and others working in the courthouse whose offices had not already been moved to the Clarendon County Administration Building on Sunset Drive were originally to move in July 2013. Court and other functions would go on as scheduled through that time, providing several months for employees to move important documents and schedule general sessions court in other venues.
“But because of problems in the roof, we were forced to move that up to May,” Roberts said. “I was told we had to move out yesterday. So, we moved into the little house across from the Bank of Clarendon that no one ever could seem to find.”
Ultimately, Roberts held court in four separate locations, starting with Clarendon County Magistrate’s Court before moving to County Council chambers at the Administration Building, the Clarendon Community Recreation Center behind Weldon Auditorium and, finally, the Breedin Garden Room, also behind Weldon.
“I just want to thank everyone for rearranging their schedules to accommodate our court sessions,” she said. “Because of you, we were able to keep the judicial system of our county going.”
Roberts also thanked Clarendon County residents who were understanding during the transition.
“We had so many who didn’t know where to go, and they would show up for jury duty and they weren’t sure they were in the right place,” Roberts said. “Almost everyone was really gracious and understanding. And I want to thank them for that.”
Clarendon County Administrator David Epperson said the courthouse has always been a building for which residents and officials could be proud.
“But I’m extremely proud of this facility and where Clarendon County has come with its building improvements in the last seven years, and with a minimal amount of burden to the taxpayers, I might add,” Epperson said during Sunday’s ceremony. “We’ve renovated the old Bi-Lo to turn it into our County Administration Building, we’ve renovated the Courthouse and we are working on the Clarendon County Government Services Complex, which will house DSS, the Coroner’s Office and the Department of Probation and Parole.”
Cothran said he’s also proud of the courthouse renovations.
“I’ve spent most of my adult career in this room, either trying cases with the Solicitor’s Office or hearing them as a judge,” Cothran said. “This is a place where the law becomes real, disputes are resolved and relationships are tested. I have a great respect of what this building means to this county. I’m proud of this building and what it stands for.”
Retired Circuit Court Judge Thomas W. Cooper Jr. introduced Toal, the guest speaker for the grand re-opening. He said that Toal has always had a special place for Clarendon in her personal and professional life.
“She is utilizing our county as a pilot project for the e-filing of documents in civil cases,” Cooper said. “And when she began her initiative shortly after she was elected as chief justice in 2000 to have high-speed Internet access, she again chose Clarendon County as one of the starting points.”
Toal said Clarendon’s acceptance of new technology in the courthouse has made it stand out among its peers in South Carolina’s other 45 counties.
“This is a courthouse whose technology and bow to its history makes it just as beautiful as any in the state,” Toal said.
Court was first held on the courthouse’s current location in 1857, but that first building burnt to the ground in the late 1800s. The current facility was built in 1909, and was “state-of-the-art” for its time, Toal noted.
“It was quite sophisticated for the time,” she said. “It had fire protection when that wasn’t even thought of. It was very solidly built, and these walls were hard to drill through when we were adding new technology over the years.”
Toal herself tried cases in the large courtroom as a young attorney after graduating from the University of South Carolina School of Law in 1968.
“I can remember when the back windows would be open in the summer and a bird or biting bugs would come into these sacred precincts,” Toal said. “And looking on the walls at the pictures of historic individuals and the stained glass windows, you felt like you were in another universe.”
She was also one of the Supreme Court justices to visit the site after the devastation of Hurricane Hugo, having only been elected to the bench a year before.
“I remember the total devastation at this site, and looking on with others in this room and thinking, ‘What are we going to do to make this place beautiful again?’” Toal said. “But this Temple of Justice has stood for generations, and you have made it beautiful again.”
Toal said the courthouse served as a site for several historic cases, including Briggs v. Elliott, which was joined with four others to become the U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. That decision ended state-sponsored segregation in public schools throughout the United States.
“It’s called Brown v. Board, but that fight started right here in this large courtroom,” Toal said. “All Levi Pearson and those families in the Briggs case wanted was a raggedy school bus and the gas to go in it. And instead, after years of struggle, they saw the end of segregation.”
Also tried in Clarendon County was Abbeville County School District v. State of South Carolina, a 21-year case in which the state Supreme Court ruled last year that the state had failed in its duty to provide what it said was a “minimally adequate” education to children in the state’s poorest school districts.
“Back then, attorneys had these banker’s boxes full of briefs and folders and files,” Toal said. “All those files broke the elevator in this building. And that’s when we began thinking, why couldn’t modern technology be used?”
Toal said Roberts was willing, along with Cooper, resident 3rd Circuit judge at the time, and the attorneys to try it.
“With their help and that of the IT department, we brought technology to the trial of a case for the first time, right in this spot,” Toal said. “The court reporter learned over night how to dictate cases for transcription of the trial record in almost real-time.”
Toal said the Clarendon County Courthouse is a “beacon of light for the state and nation for what the rule of law means for our society.”
Toal, who will retire from full-time work with the state Supreme Court in December, said she was ecstatic Sunday to be ending where she started.
“I am just so pleased to end where I started, among real friends in a community I love with all my heart,” she said.