, Muskogee, OK

August 20, 2013

Cost-cutting takes federal courts out of McAlester

By James Beaty

— McALESTER — After more than 100 years, there will be no longer be a federal court presence in McAlester.

The last scheduled session of bankruptcy court for the U.S. Eastern District of Oklahoma took place Thursday in the town’s Carl Albert Federal Building.

That’s the last scheduled federal court action of any kind in the building, prior to its planned closing as a federal court satellite at the end of August.

Although it will no longer serve as a courthouse, the Carl Albert Federal Building remains a federal facility. However, it contains only the FBI office and a credit union.

It once housed a number of federal offices, including U. S. Department of Agriculture offices, a Bureau of Indian Affairs office and the offices of former U.S. House Speaker Carl Albert.

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Tom Cornish, a McAlester native who lives in Okmulgee, has been coming to the federal courthouse since 1996. He will continue to preside over the bankruptcy court in Okmulgee.

“The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, in an effort to cut down on the cost of the courts, are closing satellite courthouse facilities,” Cornish said.

The McAlester courthouse is considered a satellite facility because it does not have court personnel at the site full time, he said.

As a federal bankruptcy judge, Cornish and his staff have traveled to McAlester to use the federal courthouse about six times a year.

During those visits, Cornish would typically hear motions on multiple cases.

The federal courthouse inside the Carl Albert Federal Building not only served individuals in the McAlester area, but also across much of southeastern Oklahoma.

William Mark Bonney, a federal court trustee, is among those who attended the last day of court at the federal building.

“It’s sad that we’re not going to be able to provide a more convenient place for the people of southeastern Oklahoma to come,” he said. “I’ve been a bankruptcy judge for 23 years, and one of the first things I did was to come to McAlester for a creditors’ meeting.”

Bonney said it’s important to him for the courts to be accessible to the people.

“For example, people coming from Idabel and having to go to Okmulgee instead of McAlester makes access to the courts almost impossible,” he said.

Bonney said there have been fewer bankruptcy filings in recent times from Idabel and he doesn’t think that’s because it’s a less-populated area. Sometimes poor people don’t have a vehicle they can count on to make a four-hour drive, he said. Although they may feel they may need to file for bankruptcy, they often don’t — simply because they can’t make it to court.

Tom Cornish indicated he would miss serving at the federal courthouse in McAlester.

“I always enjoyed coming down here,” he said. “It’s my hometown, and it’s convenient for the lawyers to come here.”

James Beaty writes for The McAlester News-Capital.