Next month, Multnomah County will break ground on one of the most ambitious public projects Portland has seen in decades: a $300 million downtown courthouse.
In that 17-story building, 38 circuit judges will ponder weighty issues, from murder cases to parental custody to evictions.
But some of those judges have raised last-minute objections about the courthouse design, citing a more basic concern: It requires them to share restrooms.
The judges squared off against Multnomah County Chairwoman Deborah Kafoury's staffers in an Aug. 11 meeting to iron out final details of the courthouse. At the meeting, Kafoury's chief of staff, Nancy Bennett, told judges that Kafoury had denied their request to each get a private restroom in the new building—a privilege they enjoy in the current courthouse. They didn't like that.
"It's not going to work," Judge Henry Kantor replied, according to a tape of the meeting WW obtained through a public records request. "Even though it would look nicer to be egalitarian."
The new courthouse, on the west bank of the Willamette River just south of the Hawthorne Bridge, will be the second-largest single project in county history, just shy of the new $320 million Sellwood Bridge.
Presiding Judge Nan Waller says the new courthouse will serve the public better than the current courthouse, which is more than 100 years old, would crumble in an earthquake, is bug-infested, and is designed in such a way that prisoners on trial use the same hallways and sometimes the same elevators as the public.
In addition, Waller says, the new building will offer easier access, more public information terminals, day care and meeting rooms for defendants and their attorneys.
"The most important thing is that the new building will be safe for the public," Waller says.
At the Aug. 11 meeting, however, judges wanted things the building won't have: secure parking and an entrance that would shield them from public view. (Bennett and project staff had no solutions for them: Building a tunnel from an adjacent city parking garage isn't feasible because there are too many underground utilities, and the city nixed a sky bridge. And judges' desire for a private entrance conflicts with the current design, which is meant to provide a calming environment for members of the public as they enter the courthouse.)
The conversation turned to restrooms—and got heated.
Currently, each judge has private chambers and a private restroom attached to his or her courtroom.
In the new configuration, chambers will be separate from the courtrooms. They will be clustered together, with four judges, each with two staff members, sharing three restrooms. That's 12 people sharing three restrooms, a ratio Bennett referred to as "generous."
At the meeting, Bennett told the judges their request for individual restrooms in the new building would add $419,000 to the project's budget and was "not justifiable."
That shouldn't have been a surprise. In 2015, Chief Justice Thomas Balmer of the Oregon Supreme Court, who also heads the Oregon Judicial Department, signed off on a budget for the project in which four judges and their staffs would share three restrooms. (The Judicial Department is paying $125 million of the project's cost.)
"The chair really is looking at every dollar," Bennett told the judges. "We get tremendous pressure from the public to build a million other things. They aren't calling us about the courthouse. They don't care."
The judges pushed back.
They offered cost-saving suggestions, such as cutting restrooms from the jury rooms, each of which has two.
The judges then asserted that fewer restrooms for them would actually be bad for the public.
Kantor said private restrooms were a matter of judicial efficiency, not personal comfort. He described a scenario in which all four courtrooms on a given floor all host trials simultaneously—and recess simultaneously for breaks and lunch.
"I believe this is going to take the average break in whatever court proceeding and double or triple the length of it," Kantor said. "This is going to be a problem." (Kantor didn't respond to a request for comment.)
Judge Judith Matarazzo supported Kantor's assertion. "The restroom issue is really important," Matarazzo said. "It's a functionality issue, not a 'wouldn't it be nice?' issue."
Statistics don't support that argument: Even as the county's population has grown about 20 percent in the past dozen years, state figures show the number of cases filed in Multnomah County Circuit Court has plummeted by more than one-third. Reflecting a national trend, civil and felony trials are down even more—45 percent.
In an interview, Matarazzo acknowledged the court's caseload has declined, although she says it's unclear how much, because state record-keeping is inconsistent. She says restrooms are less important than her perception that the project team failed to heed judges' concerns.
"For me, it was about 'How many times do we need to tell people that something isn't going to work before they listen?'" Matarazzo says. "The bathroom issue was just the final straw."
Judge Kelly Skye voiced a different objection to the proposed restroom layout. Although governments all over the country are moving away from single-sex restrooms, Skye said she did not want to share a restroom with men. "I should be entitled to a female bathroom in my workplace for all kinds of reasons," she said. "The idea that I'm doing this job where I'm doing this important work for the public and the public can't afford to give me a bathroom is offensive." (Skye didn't respond to a request for comment.)
Judges hammered at Bennett. Was Kafoury's decision final?
"Yes," Bennett said. "She feels very strongly about this."
Kantor vowed to fight on. But in an interview last week, Presiding Judge Waller conceded that shared restrooms are a done deal.
"For a number of judges, the issue of bathrooms is very important," she says. "It's an issue of tradition and dignity. But when you look at the whole project, it's going very well, and the most important thing is we're finally going to have a safe courthouse."