State of Georgia Judicial Complex rendering
State of Georgia Judicial Complex rendering (Handout)

The long-planned new home for the Georgia Supreme Court and Court of Appeals—the brick and mortar part of Gov. Nathan Deal’s vision for the state’s justice system—now has a summer construction start date and a $122 million price tag, according to the state official in charge of the project.

If all goes according to the 25-month construction plan, the Georgia Judicial Complex will be open for business in August 2019, said Steve Stancil, executive director of the Georgia Building Authority.

The state plans to sell $105 million worth of bonds in June for the major piece of the financing, approved by the General Assembly this year. If the bond issue goes as planned, construction will start in mid-July, Stancil said.

The first seed of financing came with a $7.5 million outlay two years ago for design. Last year, the state set aside $6.5 million to demolish the abandoned state archives building that was on the site. An additional $3.5 million came from a supplemental budget appropriation this year to finish the cleanup, which included removal of toxic chemicals from a dry cleaner and gas station once on the land, Stancil said.

With an expected opening date the year Deal leaves office, the building will be the final piece of the justice agenda of a governor who’s also a lawyer and former judge. He spoke of the plans on a cold Sunday morning in March to a crowd gathered near the Capitol to watch the dramatic implosion of the block-shaped archive building. The state abandoned it decades ago because it was sinking and would have cost $40 million to repair. Deal backed the teardown to make way for a building devoted exclusively to the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals, which now share space in the law department’s office building.

“The building now is from the Eisenhower era,” said Supreme Court Chief Justice P. Harris Hines. “The new building will be a signature building for our state.” Hines credited the governor’s passion for the project for bringing it to life.

Deal launched a justice reform program when he took office in 2011, starting with encouraging accountability courts around the state as alternatives to prison and moving on to offering more educational and job training opportunities for inmates before they leave. Deal has described the initiatives as a more cost-effective use of taxpayer dollars. The governor also spoke in practical terms as he expanded the Court of Appeals from 12 to 15 judges and the Supreme Court from seven to nine justices to accommodate the state’s growing population and expanding economy. He described the new justice building simply as a needed home to the highest courts “for the next 100 years.”

Deal’s practical vision for the project has taken hold. “It’s going to be nice, but it’s not going to be over the top,” Stancil said. He noted cost-saving measures such as using precast concrete instead of stone on the outside and composite mixed materials instead of marble on the inside. “Terrazzo will be nice and wear well,” Stancil said of the planned flooring. “That saved $9 million.”

As he packed up his office to retire in January, former Chief Justice Hugh Thompson talked about making sure the new larger conference table the court had to buy to seat its two new justices could be moved to the new building.

“It’ll be the first building dedicated to the judicial function. We all look forward to that,” Thompson said. “I won’t say it’s dramatic, but it’s a substantial solid building reflective of the importance of the third branch of government.”

Thompson said he hopes the state will gut and renovate the current court building—which will remain home to the Department of Justice and attorney general’s office. It has long been plagued with leaks, mold and an antiquated heating and air conditioning system. Thompson said his chambers were too warm.

Much attention is being paid to updated security systems and design—an imperative in the era, since the terrorist attacks of 2001 and the Fulton County Courthouse shooting of 2005 that killed a judge, a court reporter and a sheriff’s deputy. “We don’t want to go into details, but yes, security is being built in,” said Stancil. He did mention that the building would have a larger screening area in the entrance, so visitors won’t have to stand out in the weather while they wait to enter.

Another built-in feature will be room for growth: unfinished space to be completed when needed for future expansions of the Court of Appeals as the population grows, Stancil said.

The building will also have a pull-through area for drop-off and pickup, which could come in handy since it doesn’t yet have public parking planned. Secured parking underneath the building will be for judges only, Stancil said. He added that he still hopes to find more parking options for visitors.

Hines used the same tone of understatement as the governor and Stancil. “The Capitol will still be the dominant state building,” Hines said. But the chief justice did predict the new judicial complex will be “aesthetically striking.”

“It’s going to be a building for which the people of Georgia can be exceedingly proud,” Hines said. “And Governor Deal can be proud.”