From the Editor: Leave the Courthouse Where it Is

Albemarle Circuit Court. Photo: Lisa Martin.

Albemarle County is now considering building a new courts complex where there’s a surplus of parking, such as the sprawling vacant asphalt at Albemarle Square on Rt. 29.

The Gazette must once again make an argument on culture, so often necessary in addressing development issues—meaning our goal in Crozet is not to grow for growth’s sake, but to sustain tight small town culture in the face of it—in the case of the justice system.

Albemarle’s legal services infrastructure have grown up around Court Square for obvious reasons. That gives that essential service of government a large root ball of culture in its present location. When entertaining the options to move the courts, county supervisors should weigh heavily the cost of disturbing those roots, fragile and vast and irreplaceable as they are.

The supervisors will be tempted to quantify the move-or-double-down options with cost projections, which, as any one who has done any building will know, are likely to be just educated guesses that underestimate the final total. The only question will be how far off they end up being. So let’s accept that whatever option we choose will cost us more than we would like. The decisive factor is which does what’s good for promoting justice.

The relationships that create a healthy legal culture are harder to count up and value. But they are what make the culture for good or ill. Fracturing those, which like all relationships rely to some degree on propinquity, will have painful costs to the mission of the system.

The mission of the courts is justice, not economic development. The Gazette has little confidence in the ability of local government to create prosperity. If it could, every community in America would be rich. Business is what creates wealth and it goes where it sees real opportunity, according to its own lights, not simply a welcome-to-town sign or even community officials who are willing to cut subsidy deals to lure prospective businesses. The prosperity goal should be separated from the justice goal, and certainly not knotted up in public/private development deals. We learned how susceptible those are to corruption under the recent McDonnell administration.

Our wisest choice is to invest where we are already invested, in the court square environs, and add to what history and the legal culture have built up and entrusted to us. Honor that. In the end, we tend to forget what something cost us—this is not a license to spend wastefully—but whether the spending achieved the outcome we sought.

When U.Va. faced a choice over whether to build needed hospital rooms next to the old University hospital or build new health complex at the deserted old Blue Ridge Hospital, which could claim better Interstate access for cars, the university decided to build the new next to old. That choice best preserved the academic mission of teaching medicine. Imagine what would be happening on West Main Street today if the complex had been moved away from the University.

We should be faithful to the justice mission and trust that being true to it will have the added reward of prosperity.


  1. It makes me uncomfortable that Mr. Marshall equates this issue with that of the confederate statues. The issue here isn’t respect for our culture or history, it’s respect for our system of justice, which is carried out—not exclusively by officers or the government—but by officers of the court. He’s right that the decision shouldn’t purely be economic, but I have serious doubts about his thesis that the root of the issue here is a lack of respect for culture or history. I suspect that the move is being spurred on by a rift that exists between the City and County and bitterness on the side of the County in particular. It’s a nice narrative to tie this in to some bigger, grander debate about “respect for culture/history” (which he is missing the mark on, but that’s for a different day), but at the end of the day that’s not what’s going on here. What he is right about is that our system of justice will be disrupted, and the citizens of the community we live in will be greatly disadvantaged by, the court moving from it’s current location.

  2. I do not take issue with your views on relocating the courthouse, as this is a decision is yet to be made by those still gathering information and citizens’ input. However, I do feel compelled to comment on your assertion that “Statues that represented heroism and sacrifice to our grandparents are now cast as shameful and disposable.” Without mentioning the statues to which you refer, I think we can assume one may be the equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee in Emancipation Park. I think it is important to view statues such as this one within the context of the times they represent. Robert E. Lee petitioned for reinstatement of his citizenship rights in 1865. His petition was either intentionally pigeonholed or unintentionally lost. His citizenship was restored posthumously in 1970 after his petition was discovered in the National Archives. In 1865 he also urged in a letter to the Gettysburg Identification Meeting that the Confederate banner should be put away, and urged instead: “I think it wisest not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the example of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.” Finally, he requested that he not be buried in his uniform, and that those attending his funeral not wear their uniform or carry the Confederate battle banner. At his 1870 funeral, his wishes were honored. And yet, when the Robert E. Lee statue was erected in Charlottesville in 1924, it showed Lee in uniform astride his war horse. What had changed in the intervening years? I think we have to recognize that Jim Crow laws still existed in 1924 and that the KKK was purportedly present at the unveiling of the statue. We do not dishonor our grandparents and their beliefs in heroism and sacrifice by acknowledging that they might have been ill-informed or shaped by the views of those around them. Rather, we try to see our forebears’ views in a more informed perspective. Yes, we are “. . .having a hard time understanding how to respect our history these days.” But we’re trying, and informing ourselves and perhaps moving beyond past mistaken ideas is the first step.


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