Douglas County District Court brings in outside judge to preside over jail expansion lawsuit
photo by: Chad Lawhorn
The Douglas County District Court is bringing in an outside judge to preside over a lawsuit that aims to stop the expansion of the county jail.
Chief Judge James McCabria said Thursday in an email to the Journal-World that the outside judge, James Fleetwood, was needed because the Douglas County judges had recused themselves from the case to avoid a conflict of interest.
Although not all of the court’s judges preside over criminal cases, McCabria said that could change and any judge could receive a special assignment to one. Because of that, McCabria said, the court’s judges could all be put into a situation where they must consider using the county jail.
“Regardless of any particular judge’s ability to be fair and impartial, these circumstances create a situation that may fairly be said to cause people of reasonable minds to question the independence and impartiality of our local bench to adjudicate the issues framed by this lawsuit,” McCabria said via email. “In short, I made the decision to request a senior judge with the view of promoting confidence in the integrity of any decision in the case, regardless of what that decision may be.”
Fleetwood is a retired judge who previously served the state’s 18th Judicial District Court, which processes cases from Sedgwick County and Wichita. He now serves as one of the state’s senior judges — retired judges who agree to hear cases in various districts.
In the suit, local activist group Justice Matters argues that Douglas County commissioners are not allowing residents to vote or petition against the plan to fund an expansion of the jail, despite the group’s belief that they have an obligation to do so under state law.
John Bullock, an attorney for the county, filed a response to the suit asking for the court to dismiss the case because the county believes it already has the legal authority to issue bonds for the project through a 1-cent sales tax referendum county voters approved in 1994.
The first hearing for the case is scheduled for 11 a.m. Wednesday.
The Justice Matters lawsuit is a culmination of a yearslong effort by the group and others to stop the county from expanding the jail to house more inmates. As the Journal-World has reported, county leaders say that the jail is overcrowded, making it unsafe for both staff and inmates; opponents argue that the county needs to try more alternatives to incarceration to lower the jail’s population.
Two local nonprofit organizations, Justice Matters and the Lawrence Sunset Alliance, along with five individuals who reside within the county, are petitioning for an injunction to stop the county from issuing bonds to fund the planned expansion, estimated to cost roughly $29.6 million, plus a separate estimated $1.5 million renovation of the jail’s central heating and cooling plant.
The county had approximately $9 million on hand to go toward the jail, the Journal-World has reported. County staff planned to pursue a bond issue with a 20-year debt service to finance the rest of the estimated $31.1 million total, which is about $22.1 million.
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Related coverage: Douglas County Jail
• Jan. 16, 2019: Cost estimate for pared-down Douglas County Jail expansion is $23M
• March 3, 2018: Activist groups kick off their campaign against jail expansion