Waco: New courtroom to displace courthouse law library

The law library in the McLennan County Courthouse. (Photo by Paul J. Gately/file)
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WACO, Texas (KWTX) The McLennan County Courthouse law library’s fourth floor nook soon will be a district courtroom to provide more space to move cases through the system, but the room, itself, has spirits from more than 120 years’ use by lawyers researching the law.

“I spent a lot of time up there because it, back then, was one of only three places in the county where an attorney could research the law; it, one of the huge law firms that had a library, or Baylor,” said Steve Harrison, who began his Waco law practice in December 1975.

County commissioners, some time ago, created an associate district judge position and hired former County Court-at-Law Judge David Hodges to take the bench.

The reasoning behind the move was to take some of the court’s daily load off 19th District Judge Ralph Strother and 54th District Judge Matt Johnson by hearing pleas, arraignments and any other issue the judges ask, which will allow the two district judges to address more serious or pressing matters.

But along with finding someone qualified to sit on such issues, commissioners also had to find someplace for Hodges to do that, and the only space in the courthouse not committed to almost constant use was the fourth floor library.

“We have a limited amount of space in the courthouse and we’re just modifying the use of space to benefit everyone,” Dustin Chapman, County Administrator, said.

The project should be completed by early April, County Judge Scott Felton said.

The county began upgrading the law library eight or nine years ago, Chapman said when it undertook a reorganization, primarily it was a move from hardbound law books and paper form to computers and digital storage.

“That’s everybody’s library. It’s not just for lawyers, it’s for anybody to use when they need that resource,” Waco attorney Stan Schwieger, said.

The data stored in the library will not be discarded, rather just moved to another location, but since the county no longer maintains thousands of hard bound statutes, rather computers and data storage.

It’s the romance of losing the room, itself, that Harrison says is sad.

“I spent plenty of time up there because I didn’t have a full library,” Waco attorney Will Conrad said.

To complicate his lack of a full library, Conrad also is blind, but the county made certain upgrades for him, which, of course would benefit anyone else who needed the library that was site impaired could use it too.

“There were lots of deals worked out in that room over the years,” Harrison said.

“We used to take criminal clients up there to talk with them about a trial or a plea and there were lots of lawsuits settled up there.

“It also was a great place to catch lunch in the middle of a jury trial or to just hide, when you needed to do that,” Harrison said.

“It is a valuable resource for everybody,” Conrad said.

Maintenance of a law library was mandated by the Texas Legislature, which years ago directed each county to set aside $175,000 annually to support a library and make it available to all citizens, Schwieger said.

Part of the reason was beck then that purchasing all the volumes a lawyer would have to buy to complete a law library, then buying the supplements every two years after the Legislature changes things, especially today, would be astronomically expensive.

Set aside the hard bound books, purchasing access to the Internet-based programs that lawyers use today would cost an individual attorney thousands of dollars a year, but when the county subsidizes that access and anyone can use the county’s McLennan County, unbeknownst to pretty much everybody but civil attorneys and judges, assesses a $30 fee on each civil case filed that is earmarked for the library fund, which augments the budgetary contribution.

Schwieger sits on the local county Bar committee that is working with the county to ensure the new library is most efficient and useable, and he said the goal is to ensure the new library is as useable and complete as the old one.

“It really was spectacular, you could find anything you wanted or get anything you needed,” Schwieger said. But he’s confident the replacement will be sufficient: “I think it’ll end up being better for everybody.”