Just as only a small part of an iceberg is visible above water, so is only a portion of the Columbia County Justice Center accessible to the public.
That’s by design, said Tom Gunnels, courthouse administrator for the Augusta Judicial Circuit.
“All modern courthouses are much different today than they were when we built the original courthouse out in Appling,” Gunnels said. “That was more of a public setting, where people came in to watch court, and it was an entertainment value to a certain degree.”
Longtime Columbia County residents remember when the Appling courthouse’s week-long court sessions doubled as social events, complete with backyard barbecues. The modern Justice Center is all business.
“Given the security issues we face these days, we have gone completely opposite,” Gunnels said. “We have pretty much tried to keep the public out of most of the building.”
That process is based on three circulation patterns: Public, prisoner, and private. “Private being, of course, the staff, the judges, and that type of thing,” Gunnels said. “The only place the three really are supposed to meet is in the courtroom.”
Controlling access to those areas is a team of sheriff’s deputies led by Lt. Dan Berry, who has been in charge of security at the facility for the past seven years.
His supervisor, Maj. John Wheeler, said, “We keep as safe a courthouse as possible.”
While he wouldn’t disclose the number of deputies assigned to the Justice Center, “It wouldn’t be unusual if you were there as a witness or a jury member to see 15 or 20 deputies working, because we may have four or five courts going on at one time,” Wheeler said. “It can be a beehive of activity.”
“We’re here to keep you safe when you’re in this building,” Berry said.
That applies not only to members of the public, who must pass through metal detectors before entering the public areas of the facility, but also to the judges, staff members and jurors who work inside the building.
Many of them navigate inside the Justice Center through what Gunnels calls the “back of the house,” interior hallways that lead to judges’ chambers and courtrooms.
Other areas with restricted public access include offices for judicial clerks and court reporters and vaults where evidence and records are kept.
A portion of the facility is set aside for bringing in prisoners and holding them in cells while they await their time in court. Private elevators deliver them to the courtrooms.
While the courthouse has more restricted public access than the venerable Appling building, visitors generally expect the added security, Gunnels said.
“Given what people have to go through at airports and with other public buildings, I think it’s accepted in this day and time as an obviously sad commentary on our society,” he said. “They realize it’s there for their protection.”