Burst pipe closes DeKalb courthouse, suspends jury trials until April

Officials estimate $3.5 million in damage was done

More than two weeks after a frozen pipe burst and sent water cascading through seven floors of the DeKalb County courthouse, yellow tape and orange cones still block off the entrance to the judicial tower. Signs posted alongside the nearby elevators inform visitors that administrative offices remain closed.

It’ll be a while yet before things return to normal.

County officials estimate that roughly $3.5 million of damage was done by the Christmas Eve incident, with no concrete timetable for repairs to be completed. And a new order issued Wednesday evening by Chief Superior Court Judge LaTisha Dear Jackson says all in-person court activity will be suspended until April 3.

While some services and court proceedings can and will be provided virtually, that means no jury trials for nearly three months.

“Due to health and safety concerns, and to allow repairs to proceed as expeditiously as possible, authorization to enter the Judicial Tower will only be granted in limited circumstances,” Jackson wrote.

Credit: Tyler Estep

Credit: Tyler Estep

DeKalb officials reported the burst pipe a day after it happened, saying it had flooded the clerk’s office on the ground floor of the downtown Decatur building and access to the facility would be restricted through Jan. 3.

But the full scope of the issue — which Jackson’s order describes as “extensive water intrusion and damage” — was not publicly known until this week.

A county spokesman told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Thursday that the pipe that burst was a 3/4-inch copper “feeder line” used “to wash down the exterior HVAC equipment and roof” on the top floor of the tower.

The issue was discovered around 6:45 p.m. on Christmas Eve — a Saturday — and “immediately” capped and repaired. But it was unclear when the burst actually happened.

The aftermath suggests water had been flowing for awhile.

Seven floors experienced “varying levels of damages,” officials said. Affected facilities included six courtrooms and jury deliberation rooms, three judicial chambers, several employee offices, various hallways, four restrooms and three elevators.

The projected repair costs include initial clean-up work done by county response teams, more extensive remediation and restoration to be done an outside firm, and the use of an engineering firm to address the damaged elevators.

It was not immediately clear where the funds would come from.

While the courthouse is closed, the public can still access records and file documents online at dksuperiorclerk.com. Anyone previously notified of an in-person hearing is asked to contact the respective judge’s chambers or administrative office.

Information about marriage and weapons licenses can be found at dekalbprobatega.com.

Attorneys, judges and staff certainly have plenty of experience conducting business virtually after months and months of doing so during the COVID-19 pandemic. But the delay in jury trials stands to only exacerbate the backlog of cases accrued over that time period.

The ongoing courthouse incident, meanwhile, was just one of many reported across DeKalb County — and the rest of metro Atlanta — during the dangerously frigid weather that swept through the region around Christmastime.

DeKalb crews repaired at least 19 water main breaks and a portion of the county was under a boil water advisory for nearly three days.

While the unusually extreme weather bears much of the blame for the recent issues, DeKalb’s water infrastructure has also been largely neglected for decades. The county has endeavored to change that under current CEO Michael Thurmond, launching a massive capital improvement program that will take several years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

But there’s still lots of work to be done.