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About six months into Judge Rienne McElyea’s tenure as a district court judge in Gallatin County, an electric heating unit caught fire on the third floor of the Law and Justice Center.

The small fire set off the fire alarms, but McElyea was working in her judge’s chamber with the door closed. She couldn’t hear the fire alarm from her office — someone had to come get her when they realized she hadn’t evacuated the building.

McElyea’s fire alarm story is just one in a plethora of stories about the inadequacies of the Law and Justice center. The stories range from the mundane, like crowded hallways and bad cellphone service in a lot of the building, to the serious, like the structural instability of the building, its lack of fire suppression systems and accessibility for people in wheelchairs or with other mobility assistance devices.

On Tuesday, Gallatin County voters authorized a bond to replace the Law and Justice center, a building that was built as a Catholic school before the Americans with Disabilities Act mandated buildings be accessible to those with disabilities. The $29 million bond passed with just over 55% of the vote, according to the Gallatin County Elections Office.

“I think I can safely say on behalf of everybody in this building that works here, a huge thank you to the voters of Gallatin County,” said McElyea. “I just really appreciate that they recognized that we had an inadequate building both from a safety perspective and an ADA compliance perspective … it’s a positive day today to be able to say this will be a new building and we can put this old school to rest.”

A slew of judges, attorneys and county commissioners echoed that sentiment: a new building for the courts is a necessity, especially as the county anticipates the appointment of a fourth district court judge in December.

Gallatin County Commissioner Zach Brown said it’s a “major relief” that the bond passed.

“We didn’t have a palatable plan B,” Zach Brown said. “It’s a relief that we don’t have to make really inefficient and not ideal decisions.”

The plans for the new building include a secure parking lot for judicial staff, something the current building is lacking, and private conference rooms where lawyers can meet with clients and families. It will also include infrastructure so people incarcerated in the nearby Gallatin County Detention Center can be brought to courtrooms in hallways that aren’t shared with the public, and will have a jury selection room that doubles as a community use room after-hours.

“Most fundamentally, it will be designed as a judicial facility,” Zach Brown said. “It’ll just be a much more intentional, well-thought-out facility that keeps people safe and provides adequate spaces for the services we have to provide.”

Gallatin County Commissioner Joe Skinner said that he was pleasantly surprised with the yes vote from the county. This is the fourth time a new courts building has been on the ballot in some way or another and the third new courts building campaign Skinner has worked on.

“I wasn’t real optimistic because I had disappointments before, but I actually think the voters were right to turn the first two down and I think we’re offering a really good plan now to build something that we can be happy with,” Skinner said. “Realistically, I don’t know what we’d have done (if the bond had failed). We’d have figured it out, but it wouldn’t have been cost effective or efficient.”

Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert, who heads the prosecutor’s office and is one of four applicants vying to become Gallatin County’s fourth district court judge, said he believes a lot of people regularly using the building are “very pleased” with the outcome of the vote.

“Now we have the ability to provide a courtroom for the fourth judge, so the cases in this county, both civil and criminal, will be heard more timely and justice will be provided more timely to those whom we represent,” Lambert said.

Public defender Annie DeWolf said she’s concerned about the construction period for the new building being “chaotic,” but is excited that the new building will likely have better internet access in the courtrooms for attorneys.

“I just hope that we can still be advocates … for our clients in the new building,” DeWolf said. “I think our biggest struggle is going to be when the municipal court leaves, that we won’t be able to just walk to court because our office is currently right near the Law and Justice Center.”

The municipal court will be moving from the Law and Justice Center to the new Public Safety Center after construction finishes on the building, which is on North Rouse Avenue near the fairgrounds.

District Court Judge John Brown is the longest-serving district court judge now sitting on the bench in Gallatin County. For about 16 years, he’s worked in a standalone temporary courtroom in the parking lot, separate from the rest of the building and also without a fire suppression system.

“I’ve often thought that I would spend my entire career in my temporary standalone courtroom,” John Brown said. “I’m just very grateful that the citizens of Gallatin County passed the bond.”

He said a major positive for the new building is that it will include a courtroom for the county’s standing master, who handles mainly family law and order of protection cases. Right now, the three district court judges block off time on their calendars for Standing Master Magdalena Bowen to hear cases, but that means that district court cases can’t be happening in the courtroom at the same time. That slows down the court calendar and ultimately makes cases take longer than they really need to.

“It’s really to help us in our public service,” John Brown said of the new building. “The citizens of Gallatin County deserve a better facility than what they’ve been subjected to.”

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Melissa Loveridge can be reached at mloveridge@dailychronicle.com or at (406) 582-2651.

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