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Bryson City federal court site could be on the chopping block

fr fedcourthouseAlthough it has been spared for now, federal belt tightening could eventually lead the government to close its federal court site in Bryson City, which serves as the only one west of Asheville.

Bryson City is among numerous divisions that have been targeted for closure because there is no federal judge that resides there permanently, and it only has two employees based there. It operates in the federal building on Main Street.

The U.S. District Court’s Western District of North Carolina has to fight to keep the site open each year, sending a letter up the chain to U.S. Court officers in Richmond, Va., pleading their case.

“Our court feels strongly that we should try to keep federal court out in those areas,” said Frank Johns, clerk of court for the Western District. “Unfortunately, we are fighting our own leadership.”

Administrators at the federal level look at facility usage, the condition, security and operating costs when considering whether to close a federal court building. It is currently in the middle of closing six nationwide, including one in Wilkesboro, N.C., to help cut costs.

“The process is part of our cost containment,” said Karen Redmond, a spokesperson for the administrative office of U.S. Courts. “Money is tight, and it’s going to get tighter.”

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However, Redmond said input from the lower court districts factor highly when deciding what to close. Because the federal office is so far removed, it does not know how a closure would affect the surrounding areas, Redmond said.

“We don’t know that,” Redmond said. “That is why it goes to the local courts.”

So far, the heads of the Western District in North Carolina — which includes the main federal court buildings in Charlotte and Asheville — have been able to convince their higher ups to keep the Bryson City branch.

But, as budgets continue to get tighter, Bryson City could keep landing on the chopping block.


Is it needed?

The next closest federal court is in Asheville, which is at least 55 minutes away for people in Sylva and more than two hours east of far away Murphy.

“There is no real easy way to get from Bryson City to Asheville,” said Frank Johns, clerk of court for the Western District.

It would create a logistical challenge, he said, causing not merely a “nuisance” but an actual “burden.”

The Bryson City federal court site serves Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties. A judge travels to the courthouse in Bryson City whenever he is scheduled to preside over federal cases that can range from littering to homicide. A judge may spend a week or two at the court listening to trials and then not return for a month or more.

The federal court system only deals with federal crimes. Any crime committed on federal land — such as the national park and national forest land that is so abundant in the far western counties — count as a federal crime. Crimes on the Cherokee Indian Reservation can also be considered federal.

And, some crimes are deemed federal simply because of their nature. For example, child pornography, interstate drug trafficking and terrorism are federal crimes.

The Bryson City court also hears civil cases that deal with federal statutes or the U.S. Constitution.

If the government decided to shut down the court in Bryson City, it would potentially impact drive time for the three federal court attorneys west of Asheville. But the biggest hurt would be felt by jurors for federal cases who would still need to be chosen from among those six westernmost counties.

Fall-out could also touch the Swain County jail, which makes money housing federal inmates. The Swain County jail houses eight to 12 federal inmates at any given time. If the Bryson City court closed down, the sheriff’s deputies would need to transport alleged criminals 65 miles one way to Asheville for trial rather than simply one mile down the road.

“We would have to transport the federal inmates on to Asheville for their court dates,” said Swain County Sheriff Curtis Cochran. On the bright side however, “The federal government reimburses those officers for their time” and for mileage.

The only potential downside for the sheriff’s office is if the jail lost those federal inmates to a jail in Asheville. Swain County jail receives $55 a day for its troubles, which equals about $20,000 a year per inmate.

“That would be a huge issue if we lost our federal inmates,” Cochran said. “That adds up.”

But, like the future of the courthouse, what would happen to the inmates has a big “what if” in front of it. The main effect of its closure would be on everyday citizens who are called up for jury duty.

“It is going to be a hardship on the community more than it is on the sheriff’s office per se,” Cochran said.

Similar to the rigmarole of state courts in each county, jury duty is luck of the draw. Anyone 18 and older can be asked to serve, and the jury must come from the area where the cases originated.

If someone lived in Cherokee or Graham counties, they would have to drive all the way to Asheville to report for duty. If the person were not picked for a case, the drive would be a waste of a day, or possibly two.

“It creates a hardship for people who live out west,” said Kris Williams, an attorney in Sylva who specializes in federal criminal matters. “They are not going to be going home. The government is going to have to put them up.”

During a trial, jurors are usually in court from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and depending on the length of the trial would need to stay overnight in a hotel for several days.

There could also be problems come wintertime, Johns said. If there were a particularly potent winter storm, jury candidates, particularly those in the secluded areas of already rural Western North Carolina, would find it difficult to make it all the way to Asheville without hindrance.

For Williams, the biggest issue at stake is WNC residents’ constitutional rights.

“It restricts people’s access to the courts,” Williams said. “They are ignoring the constitutional needs of the residents of the United States. Where the government should not be cutting at all is what’s constitutionally required.”

If the government decides to close the court, that doesn’t necessarily mean the end of federal court in Bryson City, however. Johns said that the district could try to find a new home or see if it could rent out the current courtroom and office space from the new landlord.

But, those ideas are long shots so its best bet is to keep fighting to keep the court open.

“Who is going to buy that building, number one, and keep the court rooms the way they are?” Williams said. “That sounds like an overall economic loser.”

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