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No blue light special

The Democratic takeover of the Virginia General Assembly was the big headline from Election Day 2019.

But while others were refreshing their updates on Election Night, I was watching a referendum in Southwest Virginia – a vote on whether to move the Washington County courthouse to an old Kmart building in a strip shopping center.

Voters in Washington County rebuffed the measure by a 2-1 margin. The measure lost in every single precinct.

The courthouse in question sits on the crest of a hill on Main Street in Abingdon, surrounded by other historic buildings, some from the 1850s in Greek revival style and others from a later era with elaborate Victorian cornices or windows.

Across the street and down a bit is The Tavern, long a watering hole for weary travelers. Now a restaurant, The Tavern dates back to 1779, when Abingdon was an important stagecoach stop on the way west.

A courthouse has been on the current site since about 1800. Since almost colonial days, locals have had this location as the seat of justice in the area. The current building was erected in 1868, the only such building completed in Virginia during Reconstruction. The prior courthouse was burned in 1864 by a Union soldier during the Civil War.

Once, in about 1987, I tried a case in that old courthouse. Imagine this scene: Four stately Greek Doric columns frame the courthouse steps. The area behind the columns might serve as a porch where lawyers could step out to gossip, smoke, spit chaw or even settle a case or two.

Right inside the front door was a courtroom that would do Atticus Finch proud. It had creaking wood floors worn down by generations of lawyers. It had a high ceiling and big windows. It had portraits of old judges on the walls: stern dispensers of justice and preservers of the public good.

In the middle of it all, it had a large imposing bench – you knew who was boss in that room. But unlike many courtrooms, which feature the jury box on the side, here in Abingdon the jurors sat right in front of the judge.

For the record, my case, a real estate boundary dispute, was the first civil trial I handled in circuit court. It was a bench trial. And I won.

Fast forward to 2019. Atticus Finch doesn’t practice here any more.

Like so many other localities in Virginia, Washington County has struggled with adapting an 19th-century courthouse to modern life and current court practices. New buildings and additions were attached to the old building. Offices were sliced up. One constant remains: The grand old circuit courtroom is still in use, according to lawyer friends who practice there.

But with myriad security issues, a severe shortage of parking downtown and cramped quarters, the board of supervisors this summer said, “Enough.” The board voted to hold a referendum and if it passed, to spend $30 million and move all the court functions to the vacant Kmart building just off of Interstate 81, right by a strip mall.

The referendum was held Nov. 5. And the board got its answer, loud and clear. So it’s back to the proverbial drawing board.

I have to say I’m glad to see the locals willing to hold out for a different solution.

Who wants to trade history for a dreary blue light special?

— Paul Fletcher

 

Updated Nov. 8 to reflect current use of the old circuit courtroom.