Jackson County taxpayers will spend millions adding five supposedly badly needed courtrooms this year at the Independence courthouse.
Yet just nine miles to the west, at the other Jackson County Courthouse in downtown Kansas City, there are plenty of courtrooms that could accommodate the overload from Independence for years to come.
Same circuit court district. Both courthouses try the same kinds of cases, civil and criminal.
So why not save tax dollars and spread the caseload more evenly?
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At that, Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders shrugs and points to an obscure state law pushed through the legislature by special interests. No other Missouri county is subject to it.
Known as the split venue law, it requires Jackson County’s 16th Circuit to assign cases based strictly on geographical lines, regardless of courtroom space.
With few exceptions, Kansas City cases stay in Kansas City and everything else is supposed to go to Independence.
For a politician like Sanders, who often touts his success at saving taxpayer money, it’s a frustrating situation. But he says the split venue law played “a significant role” in his support of the $6.8 million renovation project.
Circuit Judge Marco Roldan, who recently completed a term as presiding judge, acknowledges that with 31 working courtrooms between them — downtown with 22 and Independence nine — the two courthouses have ample space for the current caseload.
But Roldan, a Lee’s Summit resident, said he agrees with the rationale behind the law. Eastern Jackson County residents shouldn’t have to travel farther to attend court than their Kansas City brethren.
“Certainly someone could say that it doesn’t matter that the people who are from Grain Valley should have to come all the way downtown,” he said.
But to Roldan, adding courtrooms in Independence is “a matter of fairness.”
More Jackson County residents live outside Kansas City than within it. While the overall number of cases countywide has been falling, the imbalance between the two courthouses has grown, he said.
Because of that, the court has leaned on an exception to the split venue law the past four years, transferring every fifth civil case originating in Independence to the downtown courthouse.
But Roldan said that can’t go on forever, partly as a matter of law and partly for the convenience of people who live out east.
Although some veteran court watchers of today are unaware that the law exists, it was controversial within the legal community at its passage in 1985.
Most circuit court judges opposed changing the status quo, which randomly assigned civil cases to both courthouses.
“We saw no need to tinker with the system,” presiding judge William F. Mauer said at the time.
The county prosecutor at the time, Al Riederer, complained that it would be a costly logistical burden on his office, which was filing all sex crime cases downtown while the court in Independence heard all bad check cases.
Riederer, a Democrat, called it “a piece of legislation that has not been thought through.”
Gov. John Ashcroft signed the bill into law anyway at a ceremony in Independence to the great satisfaction of fellow Republican Bob Johnson.
Now a Lee’s Summit city councilman, Johnson was then a member of the Missouri legislature and co-sponsored the bill.
“It was all about convenience,” he said recently. “For the litigant, not the lawyers.”
Out of Missouri’s 114 counties, Jackson is only one of four to have more than one courthouse, he said. For decades, lawyers in the eastern part of the county had lobbied for splitting the county into two circuit courts. Johnson’s bill was the compromise.
Eastern Jackson County interests got almost everything they wanted, except when it comes to jury duty.
As before, it doesn’t matter what part of the county people live in. Jury service in either courthouse is done randomly.
Today, convenience remains the justification for keeping the system as is, even if it does mean dunning taxpayers to add more courtrooms out east.
“The whole venue thing is ideal,” said Dennis Waits, a longtime member of the Jackson County Legislature and a lawyer whose office is within a block of the Independence courthouse. “I think there is a real obligation to serve the people of that part of the county.”
Even if new courtrooms weren’t at the heart of the project, Sanders said upgrades were long overdue. Built in 1956, the Eastern Jackson County Courthouse hasn’t seen major work since an addition was built in 1972. There is only one elevator in the three-story structure at 308 W. Kansas Ave., which inconveniences visitors when it is reserved for taking prisoners to and from court.
Sanders managed to make room for those five additional courtrooms, he said, by moving three county offices — recorder of deeds, assessment and collections — to the renovated Truman Courthouse at 112 W. Lexington Ave. The prosecutor’s office also moved to another building recently.
Calling it “a generational fix,” Sanders said the added courtrooms should serve the circuit court’s needs for the next 20 years. And if more space is needed after that, two additional floors can be added.
Best of all, he said, no money is being borrowed for the project. It’s being paid for with funds set aside the past several years.
“It’s all cash,” Sanders said.