BANGOR, Maine — The $37 million Penobscot Judicial Center, set to open Nov. 23, came in ahead of schedule and under budget.
Maine Supreme Judicial Court Justice Warren Silver wants taxpayers to know the judiciary has constructed a secure state-of-the-art facility that is a model for the delivery of justice in Maine.
“The architect said this courthouse couldn’t be built and furnished, complete with modern audiovisual equipment, this security system and be a ‘green’ building for less than $42 million,” Silver said Friday when he gave a reporter, photographer and editor from the Bangor Daily News a tour of the nearly completed facility. “We did all that and came in under budget.”
The building at 79 Exchange St. was budgeted at $37 million but will be completed for $36.4 million, Silver said. The extra $600,000 will be used for the next judicial project — the combining of the Piscataquis County Courthouse and 13th District Court in Dover-Foxcroft, Silver said. The Legislature has approved $5 million for that project.
The new courthouse is the first in Maine owned solely by the judiciary. Superior Courts are housed in county courthouses, and the judiciary rents and owns facilities that house District Courts.
Silver was assigned to oversee the project on July 29, 2005, two weeks before a robing ceremony that marked the beginning of his service on the state’s high court. He has been involved with every aspect of the project and worked with court personnel, lawyers and state, county and city officials to give them as much say as possible.
The 86,000-square-foot, 3½-story building will combine the Penobscot County Superior and 3rd District courts in Bangor. It will have full-time entry screening, security cameras in every courtroom, hall and holding areas monitored at a central location when the building is open to the public between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. weekdays.
The red-brick structure bears little resemblance to the more than century-old Penobscot County Courthouse, completed in 1903 at a cost of $116,500 and the District Court, a former grocery store bought by the county in the 1960s when the district court system was set up to replace municipal courts. Gone too are the traditional court benches for spectators. Each courtroom has “stadium” seating similar to movie theaters.
“We’ve have had this kind of seating in the District Court in Presque Isle for about 17 years,” Silver said Friday. “The worst thing that happens is people stick gum on them. People seem to carve their initials and other things in the wooden benches or chairs.”
The new structure includes seven courtrooms — one for arraignments, two for jury trials, three for family matters and one that can be used for ceremonial events or when the Maine Supreme Judicial Court convenes in Bangor. That is two more courtrooms than are in use in the two courthouses on Hammond Street. All the new courtrooms have natural light.
The largest courtroom, to be used for first appearances and arraignments, which some days bring nearly 100 people to court, is on the first floor. So is the clerk’s office.
The two trial courts and the ceremonial court are on the second floor. The remaining courtrooms to be used for family matters as well as chambers for 10 judges are on the third floor. Eight of the chambers have been assigned, Silver said. Two are for supreme court justices, two are for Superior Court justices, three are for District Court judges and one is assigned to a magistrate judge who handles only family matters. Three District Court judges in Bangor now share a desk, he said.
The trial and ceremonial courtrooms are set up for videoconferencing so prisoners and witnesses can participate but don’t need to be in the courtroom. Monitors allow jurors, attorneys, judges and witnesses to view exhibits during trials.
“The technology is amazing,” Bangor lawyer David Bate said Friday. He is one of many local lawyers who have toured the building in recent weeks. “It will give the jury a much clearer understanding of what the evidence is, especially when it’s document-heavy evidence.”
There are six public windows at the clerk’s office on the first floor, compared with the two in the current District Court and the one in Superior Court, Penny Reckards, clerk of the new combined clerk’s office, said Friday.
“We don’t expect to have them all open at once,” she said, “but if a person owes fines in both courts or has cases pending in both courts, they can be assisted at any window.”
There also will be remote clerk stations outside the courtrooms on the second and third floors so people can deal with paperwork immediately, she said. There also will be secure stations for clerks in the area where prisoners will be held so they do not have to be walked through the hallways as they are now.
Workers in that office each have 8-foot-by-8-foot cubicles in the new building, Reckards said. Clerks’ desks in the current building touch each other and there are few partitions now separating workstations. There also is more on-site room for storage of documents. Older files have been stored in rented space a few miles from the Hammond Street courthouses.
The building also includes 18 conference rooms of various sizes that can be used by groups of four to 20 people. In the present buildings, attorneys and clients often must confer in halls with little privacy.
“Clients will be better served by the multiple conference rooms,” said April Bentley, president of the Penobscot County Bar Association. “District Court can be a bit of a zoo. Oftentimes, we’ve been asking clients personal questions about their lives and about financial information or bargaining with other lawyers with little or no privacy.”
She said Friday that having both courts in one building would lead to more efficient use of lawyers’ time and fewer scheduling conflicts in Superior and District courts.
The courthouse also has a large multipurpose room that could be turned into an eighth courtroom if needed, Silver said. When the building opens, it will be used as a room for potential jurors to gather and as a training room for clerks and judges.
The original plans for the building called for the Penobscot County District Attorney’s Office to be in the building. Those plans had to be adjusted when the lot, which is in a flood plain, was purchased from the city of Bangor.
The building lost a floor because a structure with a basement could not be built on the lot. The lower level is a parking lot. Were the Kenduskeag Stream to overflow its banks, as it has in the past, the electricity and the elevator at that level are designed to shut off automatically when the water reaches a foot deep in the parking area.
The District Attorney’s Office will have an estimated 10,000 square feet of working space, according to Silver, that the county will rent for $10 a square foot. The judiciary paid to furnish the space and for the phone lines so data can be transferred from its office behind the historic courthouse to the new building. R. Christopher Almy, district attorney for Penobscot and Piscataquis counties, has been critical of the setup and called the new building “a lavish facility.”
“I think that generally, [Bangor area lawyers have] been very supportive of the new building,” Bentley said. “There is a segment that is sad to see the Superior Court vacated, but on the other hand, no one can deny that the new facility is greatly needed. From the individual monitors for jurors to the adjustable podiums that can be accommodated for different attorneys’ heights to the security system, this building has brought the court into the 21st century.”