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Travis County is now the proud owner of the historic Austin Federal Courthouse at 200 W. Eighth St. in Austin.
County Judge Sarah Eckhardt accepted the deed Thursday on the courthouse steps, joined by other elected officials including U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, for a news conference about the agreement.
“We have been hoping and praying for this gift from Uncle Sam for a while,” Eckhardt said.
The federal government declared the building as surplus, so the county did not have to pay for the property. The county began considering options to provide civil and family courts capacity after the failure of the 2015 bond referendum for a new civil and family courts complex. In November 2016, the Commissioners Court approved an application to obtain the Eighth Street courthouse property from the National Park Service. It will be used to house probate courts.
Eckhardt said it will take an estimated $28 million to renovate the building, with about $20 million of that going toward structural improvements.
“We need the relief badly,” Eckhardt said. “The sooner we can get this building up and running the sooner that frees up space in the Heman Marion Sweatt [county courthouse]where we need two additional district courts.”
The county will go to the legislature to ask for those additional courts this session, Eckhardt said.
Travis County only has one probate judge, but by 2020 when the building opens there are slated to be two probate dockets, and by 2035 there will be four, Eckhardt said. The probate court deals with wills, declares heirs of deceased people who die without a will, establishes guardianships, supervises court-ordered involuntary mental health commitments, and administers eminent domain cases, according to the county.
Doggett said the Eighth Street structure has been vacant for about four years since the construction of a new federal judiciary structure to replace it.
“I think this building is more than the limestone we see or the granite that is at its base. It really is about our belief in a system of law that is capable, to the extent that we’re capable as human beings, of being unbiased and fair [and]that justice is served here and administered to everyone regardless of status,” Doggett said. “We are making an investment not only in this building but in the system of justice that will be good for the public here in Travis County.”
Eckhardt said physically moving the probate courts, county clerk and other support services for probate court to the building will help relieve some of the pressure on civil and family courts in terms of capacity.
“It’s like a game of Tetris,” she said. “You move something down over here and you pull something down over here, and we are rearranging the furniture and trying to make it faster and more efficient. We are looking for ways to streamline our procedures … [and for]new ways to deliver justice in order to maximize our space needs and also keep our courts together,” she said.
The county oversees civil, criminal and probate courts, all of which are interrelated, Eckhardt said. One individual might have needs that require the services of multiple court systems, she said.
“We will start [work to renovate the Eighth Street courthouse]as soon as we can. We will have an agenda item on the commissioners court [meeting agenda]next Tuesday to provide an update and start moving forward on the necessary contracts to get into this building as soon as possible,” Eckhardt said.