Justice should not end at the Court House steps! In fact, a Court House is the very symbol of justice in our society. It is a place where all people must be treated equally regardless of race, gender, religion, or level of physical ability.
Despite this noble ideal, it has become painfully apparent that equality and justice will stop at the door of the Ramsey County Court House/Saint Paul City Hall building when major renovations begin this spring. Although the cost of the project is projected at approximately $48 million dollars, the Court House Renovation Committee has decided the projected $2 million cost of making all court rooms handicapped accessible is too high a price. Instead, the Committee has recommended making only9 of the 25 courtrooms handicapped accessible.
The City Council unanimously opposes this position of the Renovation Committee and has soundly criticized the proposal to make only a third of the courtrooms accessible. The Council unanimously passed a resolution supporting state-wide legislation that would require buildings being substantially renovated using public funds to be 100% accessible. Such a legislative change would restore the provision that previously existed in state law that required 100% accessiblity if the cost of renovation exceeded 50% of the value of the building. The City Council believes that the Legislature clearly did not intend this result when it authorized the County to levy the $48 million. The sad irony is that if the County had decided to build a brand new courthouse for less than the $48 million being spent in this historic preservation effort, all the courtrooms would have had to be made accessible regardless of any “statistical” argument the County might make about the number of accessible courtrooms needed.
While it is important to preserve the historic City Hall/Court House building, we should not preserve for decades the building’s “architectural prejudice”. In criticizing the Renovation Committee’s decision the Council declared that making the entire Court House accessible is one of its top priorities. The Council believes that the $48 million budget for the project could easily be adjusted accordingly should the Committee make equal rights and accessibility its top priority as well. There is strong evidence to suggest that the estimated $2 million cost for full accessibility was inflated by placing “aesthetic” concerns over concerns of access for the disabled.
The disabled community in Minnesota should take notice of this issue and make every effort to lobby the Ramsey County Commissioners to persuade them to change their minds before it is too late. In addition, unless the state law is changed as suggested by the City Council, city halls and court houses being renovated around the state could all continue their “architectural prejudice” into the next century. We should not allow this to happen in our “halls of justice.”
-St. Paul Councilmember, Bob Long