Column: Judge Not the Homeless

Swartz opposed to possible location of supportive housing

The Housing and Human Services Advisory Board made a recommendation to city council back in May 2008 for the location of supportive housing units to replace those lost at the site of the old YMCA building. (See previous Chronicle coverage on site analysis for such units.) In analyzing an alternative to its recommendation to issue an RFP for construction of housing units at the site of the old YMCA, the HHSAB noted one of the downsides to other sites located within the downtown:

i. Potential neighborhood opposition
ii. The City will need to secure the site if it is not currently owned by the City

I think it’s premature at this point to assume that neighbors have made up their minds that they’re opposed to construction at any one of the three sites that have been suggested along the block of Fourth Avenue roughly between Ann and Catherine streets. But who are these neighbors, who have a stake in an area that would change through the addition of 60 or more units of affordable housing?

In part they’re business owners. Taking a look at site C on the corner of Fourth and Catherine, a building of substantial size would necessarily block the visual approach to Braun Court from the south. While it’s possible to imagine a building design for the affordable housing that would afford sight-lines from the south to Braun Court, a design of that kind is likely inconsistent with the “plain vanilla” approach that is forced by the economics of funding. So it’s understandable that business owners in the area are going to have questions and concerns that need to be addressed – not just about site C, but the others as well. From what I understand, the topic has already generated discussion at a recent meeting of the Kerrytown District Association.

And the neighbors are in part just plain neighbors, that is, residents. This is a point that Christine Crockett, of the Old Fourth Ward Association, made in conversation after the Dec. 8 council working session. There are people who live proximate to the area under consideration, and those residents, she said, need to be looped into the conversation. Engagement of the public is something that Jayne Miller, director of community services for the city, has indicated as a next step.

And the neighbors are in part judges. Like, for example, Judge David Swartz, who sits on the 22nd Circuit Court housed as part of the Trial Court in the Washtenaw County Courthouse. Swartz was recently re-elected to that position in November, with the support of 36% of voters who made a choice in that election. (Candidates Shelton, Swartz, Shapiro, polled 43%, 36%, and 21% of the vote, respectively, with incumbents Shelton and Swartz enjoying the benefit of ballot designation – under their names on the ballot is printed “Judge of the Circuit Court.”

Among the three sites that were a part of the staff presentation to city council’s working session a week ago is site A on the southwest corner of Fourth and Ann, which is part of a parcel owned by the county. It’s current use is as a surface lot with underground parking spaces. It’s adjacent to the courthouse building where the 22nd Circuit Court is housed.

It turns out that Judge Swartz has formulated an opinion on the use of that site for supportive housing, which he expressed in an email sent to various parties, including all members of the county board of commissioners:

As we explained in our informal meeting a couple weeks ago, construction of this proposed structure in the courthouse parking lot site will be adamantly opposed by the judiciary, at both the local and state level. In addition to many other concerns, construction on the courthouse site would violate basic security principles that the county is already familiar with from prior county courthouse architectural studies. This is a matter of concern for the public safety of people who use the courthouse as well as for the occupants of the proposed housing. Locating such housing above and within 30 yards from the only point of entry for charged and convicted felons being transported from the jail or prison places everyone involved at risk. If the City truly believes that location of replacement Y housing on a courthouse site is appropriate, perhaps it [sic] they can incorporate it in the site and architectural planning for the new 15th District Courthouse facility which they are constructing [emphasis added].

I know I do not need to remind the City of the Court’s function as a separate and independent branch of government with the responsibility to provide safe judicial services to the public. We have advised the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court Administrator Office of the City’s suggestion for this project as it relates to the courthouse. If this project goes to the next level the Supreme Court will be involved and we will invoke the available procedures in opposition, including litigation if necessary.

Let’s ignore the sarcasm invoked by Swartz as a rhetorical flourish (and italicized in the passage above for easy identification by Chronicle readers) to focus on the one actual concern that is addressed in the above blockquote of judicial bombast: public safety. Locating supportive housing in this location, Swartz contends, puts people’s safety at risk who use the courthouse. Why? Unless Swartz is ignoring councilmember Leigh Greden’s good-sense admonition made at council’s working session against “the assumption that this is a population of troublemakers,” it’s difficult to see the case for that claim.

Swartz also implicates that residents of the proposed supportive housing are at risk to their safety – from prisoners being transported to and from the courthouse. To make that case, Swartz has some additional work to do: show that residents of supportive housing at that location are at extra risk – more so than the current users of the surface parking lot at the same site, for example – than other groups, due to the fact that charged and convicted felons are transported from the jail to the courthouse.

The supporting material that Swartz copied and pasted into his email is excerpted from the Supreme Court Administrator Michigan Court Facilities Standards and includes the following:

Section 2.

The courthouse interacts on a daily basis with incarcerated defendants from the jail and with the public. For efficient operations, the courthouse site should be located in a location convenient to the public and to the jail. (If video technology is used to minimize inmate transport to the court, proximity to the jail becomes less important in selecting a courthouse site.) The site must permit secure access for detained offenders through a vehicular sally port that will not be entered by the public or the judiciary.

Section 2.4 includes the following admonition:

The design of the courthouse needs to reflect the separate and constitutionally independent status of the judiciary as a separate and equal branch of government. Even when located within a larger county government center the image of the courts as separate and equal need to be maintained. The temptation to cheapen the significance of the courthouse by treating the courts as just another “county department” needs to be avoided.

2.4.1 Accessibility

The courthouse exists to serve the public and must be easily accessible to those who require its services. Both inside and out, the courthouse must be designed to handle large numbers of visitors. These will include those coming to trial, the media, staff working in the building, witnesses and attorneys associated with cases, citizens coming for information or to file complaints, and those coming to pay fines or other payments. Ample public areas must be provided both inside and outside the building to make access as easy and comfortable as possible and to maximize the speed at which the public can be served. Because the courts are a government agency, service should be expedient and simple to combat the stereotype of bureaucracy. Accessibility should be designed with public service as the primary goal. This concern extends to the public spaces devoted to security and weapons screening. Sufficient space needs to be provided to permit easy and quick access to the building.

2.4.2 Parking

Ample parking must be provided within easy walking distance of the courthouse for judges, staff, jury members, law enforcement officers, and visitors. In an urban setting, public parking may be provided nearby in public ramps or garages. If not, the courthouse may provide public parking on site, either in open lots or in parking structures adjacent to the building. If the courthouse is collocated with a jail or detention center, the demand for parking is greatly increased due to jail shift changes and visitors. For security reasons, no public parking should be provided within or under the courthouse. If possible, public parking should be free and near the courthouse. An estimate of the number of parking spaces needed should be completed with the building program or needs assessment. This estimate will include those coming to court, those coming to pick up information, and those requiring any other services housed in the same building. Generally for public and judicial staff parking, there should be one space for every four (4) seats in each courtroom, and one space for every 250 square feet of office space (some jurisdictions have different square footage requirements or recommendations).

If jury trials are held in the courthouse, additional parking spaces (up to 50 per jury called) will be required on days when juries are called. Sufficient parking should be available to permit jurors to park and access the courthouse quickly and easily. To ensure sufficient public parking for jurors, a “juror only” area can be created in a large parking lot, or special parking permits can be handed out to permit jurors to park in unassigned staff spaces. If jurors are required to park in a parking structure, parking fees should be validated by the Courts.

A separate secure parking area should be provided for judges. This parking area should be covered and screened by a wall or fence, if possible. Security cameras should be used to monitor activity in this area. A protected entrance with punch-code or card access should provide limited entry to the courthouse. Courthouse security staff should be located close to this entrance, either inside or outside the courthouse. This parking area can also be used by the bailiffs for an additional security presence. If possible, separate staff parking should also be provided. This parking area can be located close to a secure building entrance for staff, or staff could share the judges’ entrance.

All parking areas should offer ramped walkways to the courthouse for wheelchair or handicapped access. Outside public entrance doors should be equipped with automatic opening devices. Handicapped parking spaces for the public and judicial staff should be provided as near an accessible entrance to the courthouse as possible.

In all of this material quoted from facilities standards, I can discern no additional information that bears any relevance to the question of the appropriateness of sites A, B, or C for construction of supportive housing.

However, in emphasizing the section from 2.4, which is repeated here for readability, I think Judge Swartz identifies the source of his actual objections: “Even when located within a larger county government center the image [emphasis added] of the courts as separate and equal need to be maintained. The temptation to cheapen the significance of the courthouse by treating the courts as just another ‘county department’ needs to be avoided.”

Swartz’s objections, I think, have something to do with image. A supportive housing facility located in such close proximity to the courthouse doesn’t project the right image, somehow. If that is the nature of Swartz’s objections, then for my part I have to say that they have no merit.

As the discussion moves forward and the public is engaged, I would encourage Judge Swartz to participate in any public forums that might be offered to explain the analysis of the three sites. It’s important that residents, business owners, and people who work at those businesses – like waitstaff and servers at bars and restaurants in the area – as well as public servants like Judge Swartz, give their feedback to city staff.


  1. By Steve Bean
    December 16, 2008 at 7:33 pm | permalink

    This man is our judge? He sounds more like a corporate attorney. The sarcasm (sorry, HD, I won’t ignore it) isn’t funny, and the lack of open-mindedness and objectivity in his comments is simply disturbing. Likewise his insinuation that the city is “tempt[ed] to cheapen the significance of the courthouse….” Oops! That’s from the SCAMCFS. Interesting that such language made the final cut for those standards.

    Reactions aside, if he’s concerned about the safety of residents of a possible new building there, what’s he doing now to ensure our safety as we walk by that building on 4th Ave., for example? Assuming that something is being done, why won’t that be adequate for the prospective residents?

    If Judge Swartz keeps this up, there may be no need for “temptation” in order for the courthouse to be “cheapened”.

  2. December 17, 2008 at 11:29 am | permalink

    Litigation? On what theory? The County owns the land in question, not the Court. And the standards Swartz cites are merely advisory, not mandatory.

    Since Swartz is making a threat, it should at least be a credible threat.

  3. By Vivienne Armentrout
    December 17, 2008 at 12:11 pm | permalink

    Some years ago the Circuit Court judges were very close to suing the Board of Commissioners based on state statutes requiring counties to provide adequate facilities to courts. Then-Chief Judge Archie Brown actually appeared before the BOC to delineate some of those arguments.

    The county administrator and others negotiated a compromise that set in motion the planning that led to the failed jail/court millage.

    Without any other information other than what is presented here, I would speculate that if the judges see a housing project on that parking lot as a threat to their own security (they have lobbied for separate parking and entrances in the past), as well as the end to any future hope of a courthouse expansion, they might revive the old concept of a lawsuit against the BOC based on the adequate provision theory. I don’t know the actual law.

  4. By Leah Gunn
    December 17, 2008 at 7:23 pm | permalink

    The prisoners would be dangerous? Give me a break – I have seen them and they are all in shackles. Judge Swartz is very arrogant. And David Cahill is right – these are NOT any kind of rules – they were made up by the State Court Administrative Office. And by what right do judges deserve more security than the populace at large? To go into the courthouse these days, it is like going through airport security, and your taxes are paying for it.