AUGUSTA — The Maine judicial and executive branches joined forces with a number of legislators Friday afternoon in a ceremonial grand opening of the Capital Judicial Center.
While the new courthouse at 1 Court St. has been in use since March 2, the gathering had been delayed partly to allow the completion of renovation of the large courtroom in the 1830 Kennebec County Courthouse, which is reached through a series of raised glass walkways, and to complete the parking areas.
Linda Conti, who represents Ward 1 on the Augusta City Council, said before the ceremony that she was particularly glad about the location and the connection to the older courthouse. “This is a safe, modern facility, and at the same time, our historic building is preserved,” she said.
Inmates, too, apparently wanted to weigh in on the grand opening, pounding on the windows of the adjacent Kennebec County jail just as Leigh Saufley, chief justice of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, began speaking over a public address system in the sun-baked courtyard leading to the public entrance of the four-story glass-and-concrete structure.
Saufley praised Elizabeth “Libby” Mitchell, who was president of the Maine Senate when the two collaborated in 2009 to secure funding for the $58 million project.
“Maine is unique,” Saufley said. “In Maine, when we’re working on access to justice, legislators show up. They care. They work with us. The governor shows up; he cares. Access to justice is bipartisan, and I am so proud of the state of Maine.”
Saufley described conditions in the basement of the nearby old Augusta District Court building, which contained one of the building’s two courtrooms, and a small corridor where the public gathered.
“You’ve heard me say the situation before was horrible; it was absolutely unacceptable,” she said. “It was very dangerous. We were lucky it didn’t have any tragedies.”
She contrasted that with the new building.
“It is built so everywhere the public goes, there is wonderful natural light and there is space and light,” she said, praising PDT Architects and Consigli Construction Co. for their work. She said the new building offers a place where people “can safely get access to justice.”
The Capital Judicial Center contains six courtrooms and provides access through the walkways to the seventh. It holds a mediation suite, multipurpose rooms and numerous conference rooms, as well as a large multipurpose room used Friday to hold refreshments.
“The building is built to serve the public for a century or more,” Saufley said.
Gov. Paul LePage, who followed her at the lectern, immediately countered, “A century’s not long enough – 200 years.” He said he was impressed by the area where family law cases are heard, with conference rooms where people can speak with their attorneys and small chairs are available for children.
“I am very pleased that this week the Law Court heard cases right here in the old building,” LePage said, adding that the chief justice told him it had been 45 years since that had occurred.
LePage said it was time for a building to be safe for judges, staff members and those using it.
“This is going to be a great courthouse and a great monument to the state of Maine, and the courts will continue to do the jobs they do best and keep civility in our society,” he said.
Supreme Court Associate Justice Joseph Jabar, who was the liaison for the Maine Judicial Branch and chairman of the courthouse committee, said: “It’s great for the city. It’s great for the state. It’s right down the street from the Capitol. And I think it’s only appropriate that the best judicial center in the state is located in the capital.”
Jabar credited a number of individuals for their work on the team as various construction decisions were made.
District Court Chief Judge Charles LaVerdiere, who has his chambers in the new building, recalled the cramped quarters and lack of security at the old Augusta District Court, where people sometimes gained access through an unlocked door, and Justice Donald Alexander recalled one defendant chasing a victim away from that courthouse.
Now everyone using the main doors must go through entry screening, and court security officers are stationed in the various courtrooms during hearings.
Betty Adams can be contacted at 621-5631 or at: