Local lawyers denied more courthouse access

Published 7:01 pm Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Commissioners turned down a request by the Beaufort County Bar Association to give local lawyers back-door access to the Beaufort County courthouse.

The vote comes in the wake of measures to increase courthouse security by funneling all courthouse visitors through manned security checkpoints at the front door and basement-level, handicapped accessible entrance, while closing off the back door to all but those who work in the courthouse.

During Monday’s regular meeting of the Board of Commissioners, Evan Lewis, president of the Beaufort County Bar Association, backed by a crowd of local lawyers, appealed the board’s decision to limit access to the back door when many local lawyers stream in and out of the courthouse several times in the course of a normal business day. Lewis also delivered letters from 2nd Judicial District Attorney Seth Edwards and Fred Holscher, a partner with Rodman, Holscher, Peck & Edwards, in support of broadening the scope of back-door access.

As one of the early proponents of increased courthouse security, Edwards said he understands the perspective of security consultants in that less access given through certain entry points means greater building security, but that it shouldn’t happen at the expense of local lawyers.

“The ones that primarily need (back-door access) are the ones who do real estate law,” Edwards said, describing daily transactions that take those lawyers from the Clerk of Court’s Office to the Register of Deeds office to the tax office, also located behind the courthouse, multiple times in the course of a normal business day.

“That’s the path they beat every day,” Edwards said.

Currently, attorneys are being asked by the county to apply for passes that would give them priority clearance at the front door security checkpoint. Of 36 applications the county has received, 13 of those requested access through the card-swipe entry system at the rear door of the courthouse, according to County Manager Brian Alligood.

“To say that you trust employees and not a local lawyer just doesn’t seem right,” Edwards said. “At the end of the day, the reality is that it’s going to be a very small number of lawyers using that back door.”

Holscher is one of those lawyers: his office is located on Market Street, behind the courthouse, and most of his courthouse business involves real estate.

“As an officer of the court and a lawyer practicing since 1973, I do not feel that I pose much of a risk to courthouse personnel,” Holcher’s letter reads.

Edwards advocates the county set up a policy that would allow access to certain attorneys: those who work and have a physical office in Beaufort County and are in good standing with the North Carolina Bar Association.

“I’m not concerned from a security standpoint about allowing Beaufort County attorneys to go in and out the back door,” Edwards said. “I think to say they can’t is a slap in the face.”

After Lewis’ presentation on behalf of the Beaufort County Bar Association, Commissioner Hood Richardson made a motion to allow back-door access to the courthouse for officers of the court, land surveyors, of which Richardson is one, and any other professional who needs access to the records located in the courthouse — a much broader request than that recommended by Edwards. Richardson and Commissioner Frankie Waters cast the only votes in favor of the motion.

According to Alligood, no additional motion was made to change the existing security policy.