Court getting much-needed upgrade this summer

By Paul Janczewski

Legal News

The bullet holes behind the judge's bench have long been repaired. Now it's time to renovate the rest of the historic Bay City federal court.

"We're going to be renovating the second- and third-floors, largely because it hasn't been touched in years," said U.S. District Court Judge Thomas L. Ludington, who resides in the northern-most post of the Eastern District of Michigan.

Erected in 1931, the building on Washington Avenue is home not only to the federal court and its support staff offices, but also for the U.S. Postal Service.

"It was a fairly common practice back then," Ludington said of the dual-purpose federal buildings of yesteryear.

He said a Customs House also was located there in the past, according to a notation on the front of the building.

Ludington said it also was home to more federal agencies, including the bankruptcy court and U.S. Attorney's office, but those places have relocated into other buildings in the past decade.

"But what we haven't done is renovation of the areas that support the court," he said, areas that house Probation, Pre-Trial Services and the Clerk's office. "And as those functions have changed very dramatically over the years, that space needed attention."

In all, the court employs 35 employees. It has 24,500 square feet of space, but it wasn't being used properly.

"It's misallocated space," Ludington said. "It was a good use for the square footage 40 years ago, but not a good use of it today."

Ludington said he and Chief Judge Gerald Rosen had been talking about the problems for some time, and decided the work had to be done. The two decided "the work environment didn't enable people to be productive," Ludington said. "It hindered their productivity. We think the changes that we'll make will enable people to work more productively and more comfortably."

The interior renovations will cost about $1.4 million. Nothing on the outside will be touched. The renovations will consist of knocking down walls, creating new spaces and make better functional use of the existing space. Funding has come from allocations dedicated to both the Eastern District and 6th Circuit of the U.S. District Court.

Although the physical work will begin within a month, and completed over the course of a year, the project has been under way for nearly 18 months.

"We began with the active involvement of employees of the court, and department heads in Detroit, in examining how we do business today, and how we think we'll be doing business in the future," he said.

"It's been work, but it's also been fun," he said. "I think people are pretty excited about the changes that will be made."

The renovations include adding a fitness room with a running machine and elliptical machines and weights, a staff break room, training room, jury deliberations room, attorney witness room, and new digs for Probation and Pre-Trial Services.

A portion of the project will also address the courtroom, adding necessary technological improvements and improving the acoustics. Those changes are also being made in federal courts throughout the district, Ludington said.

"It's technology we need for the presentation of digital information," he said. "We don't use blackboards anymore, we use computers, and in order to effectively educate jurors, we needed better technology to accomplish that."

Attorneys will have pop-up computer screens at their tables, and jurors will also have monitors to better see the evidence presented.

Finally, chairs and carpeting will be added to spruce up the old gal.

Some renovations will involve security measures, but those changes will be small.

"The U.S. Marshal's Service has done a very good job of developing security procedures, and those will not be impacted by the changes," Ludington said.

Speaking of security, Ludington said one story that always gets told revolves around those bullet holes. According to Ludington, and "The Court Legacy," a publication through the Historical Society for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, the shooting occurred March 12, 1956. Information was also provided by U.S. District Judge David M. Lawson, located now in Detroit but earlier in Bay City, and his staff.

U.S. District Court Judge Frank A. Picard was conducting a trial when Stanley Wloch, a former mental patient who had threatened him in the past, entered an area just outside the court, poked a shotgun through the courtroom's swinging doors and fired a blast of pellets that narrowly missed Picard's head but leaving a patter of pellets on the wall just behind him.

According to "The Court Legacy," there is some dispute whether Picard chased the man and helped capture him, or if he was caught by the FBI. Either way, Picard calmly and quickly resumed the trial. Years later, the bullet holes were patched up.

"You wouldn't know it today," Ludington said. "They've done a good job of patching, but it was a fairly notorious experience."

Published: Mon, Jul 11, 2011