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The Great Hall inside John Adams Courthouse has been restored. In an exterior photo, the courthouse is on the left. Suffolk Superior Court is on the right. The law library can no longer be accessed from the Suffolk side. (Globe Staff Photos/ Barry Chin)

Split decision

Renovations done for SJC divide buildings, officials

The Supreme Judicial Court, sharply criticized by some elected officials for the extravagance of its august new $150 million quarters, is now under fire from state trial court judges who say the high court has isolated itself from its less-elite brethren.

Literally.

In renovating the John Adams Courthouse in Pemberton Square, the SJC eliminated passageways that once provided a physical and symbolic link between the 1894 building and the soon-to-be-reopened Suffolk Superior Courthouse next door.

In an unusual display of discord, some Superior Court judges and officials are denouncing the severing of the two buildings. And some see it as a deliberate effort by the SJC to cut itself off from more lowly courts and from the public.

''They don't want us to come into their building," said one judge, who like other Superior Court judges interviewed insisted on anonymity for fear of reprisal. ''What are we, the riffraff?"

A second judge said the Superior Court sees itself as the judicial system's Marine Corps, whose judges routinely work 12-hour days presiding over civil and criminal trials and penning countless decisions. ''The effect of segregating the Superior Court in another building is seen as an institutional affront to the Marine Corps of the system," the judge said.

Together, the Adams Courthouse and the 1939 high-rise next door, the judge said, served as the symbol of Massachusetts judiciary for more than six decades. ''Now it's been balkanized," the judge said.

The squabble has struck a dissonant chord as the SJC and state Appeals Court, another occupant of the recently reopened Adams Courthouse, prepare to dedicate the building March 31. Among those scheduled to attend are US Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and Adams biographer David McCullough.

Robert J. Cordy, the SJC justice who played a key role in the renovation project, bristled at the criticism, calling it ''unbelievably narrow."

Sealing the passageways, Cordy said, ''has nothing to do with disconnecting people from this building." The Adams Courthouse, which the SJC and Appeals Court moved into Jan. 31, is ''for everyone in the judicial branch."

Cordy said the state split the buildings because the future of the Suffolk Superior Court building was uncertain. The Depression-era 24-story building may ultimately be razed, he said, even though it underwent about $40 million in renovations and is expected to house the Superior Court for about 10 years.

The Adams Courthouse, meanwhile, is an architectural treasure, intended to be the permanent symbol of the Massachusetts judiciary. With restored frescoes and the lovingly preserved wood-paneled courtroom where Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. once sat, it's expected to be an educational center and tourist attraction.

Since the renovation was first funded in the early 1990s, its cost has ballooned. Originally estimated at $40 million, the project is now expected to cost $146.6 million. The money, critics say, would be far better spent on crumbling courts around the state.

Defenders of the restoration counter that restoring the once-grand courthouse, which is on the state and federal registers of historic buildings and had fallen into disrepair, was well worth the cost.

But now the criticism focuses on the decision to cut off the stately courthouse from its less regal neighbor.

One Superior Court judge noted that five of the seven SJC justices come from the ranks of trial court judges and should have been more sensitive to these concerns. The two exceptions, the judge noted, are Chief Justice Margaret H. Marshall and Cordy.

Referring to Cordy's characterization of the criticism as narrow, the judge said, ''The use of that word is extremely unfortunate and shows a really deep unawareness of the trial court culture."

Symbolism aside, several Superior Court officials said the separation makes it harder for trial court employees and lawyers to use the Social Law Library -- the nation's oldest law library and one of Boston's oldest civic and cultural organizations -- which is housed on the fourth and fifth floors of the Adams Courthouse.

If the buildings were still linked, critics say, Superior Court law clerks who needed to do legal research could simply use the passageways that used to connect the buildings on the basement, first, second, and third levels. Now they'll have to leave the high-rise, walk about 50 yards, and then re-enter the Adams Courthouse. (Lawyers who want to dash to the library during a break between Superior Court proceedings will also have to pass through metal detectors, because they are not state employees.)

Suffolk Civil Clerk Magistrate Michael J. Donovan said separating the two buildings will inconvenience employees from his office who carry motions to the higher courts. ''I don't know what their thinking was," he said.

Kevin Flanigan, a deputy director for the state Division of Capital Asset Management, which oversees government properties, said planners decided early in the renovation project to sever the buildings, given that the high-rise may be sold or demolished.

''The high-rise, even with the $40 million investment in the building, is not seen as the permanent, long-term solution for the Superior Court," he said. (Suffolk Superior Court currently occupies a building in Post Office Square and is expected to move back to the high-rise in the spring.)

Asked about the judges' criticism, Flanigan said it might be possible at some point to reconnect the two buildings, but that it might pose architectural challenges because the floors don't match up. Joan Kenney, a spokeswoman for the SJC, also noted that judges can still walk between the buildings through underground garages.

Some lawyers interviewed said the Superior Court judges' concerns seemed exaggerated.

''It isn't as though the Supreme Court, Appeals Court, and Social Law Library are located blocks away from where they [Superior Court judges] are," said Michael B. Keating, a past president of the Boston Bar Association. ''The entrances to both buildings are probably 100 feet from each other."

One Superior Court judge who had initially denounced the separation of the two buildings as an insult said that, upon reflection, it probably made sense if the high-rise was going to be torn down.

But David L. Yas, editor in chief of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, said Superior Court judges already feel like ''nomads and second-class citizens because they're moving from one leftover building to another leftover building, while appellate court judges get a beautiful new home."

Trial court judges have also been under greater pressure to work long hours because of a television report last fall about judges who allegedly worked short days, he said. Appellate court judges, on the other hand, ''do a lot of work from home and are not being forced to punch a clock."

''This is kind of an uncomfortable time [for] relationships in the judiciary," he said. ''There's definitely been a sense that trial court judges and appellate court judges play by different rules."

Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at jsaltzman@globe.com.

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