Judicial Gravitas

Posted Dec. 04, 2009, at 5:54 p.m.

Few would assert that the new Penobscot Judicial Center is architecturally inspiring, inside or out.

But the $34 million facility, which opened for business this week, succeeds on several practical levels. And that success anticipates a new way of operating the judicial system, a way that saves taxpayers money and allows those using the system to move through efficiently and with less loss of dignity.

The judicial branch of government is essential to democracy, yet it is often treated like an unwanted stepchild. That’s because its constituents will always be a minority of the population. And those using the courts typically are there because they or someone in their family has run afoul of the law, is in conflict with others or in personal or family crisis.

Some of Maine’s 19th century courts do inspire awe with their imposing brick exteriors and the soaring grandeur of 20-foot-high ceilings. The message they imparted was that important decisions were made there, and the people who made them were endowed with power and wisdom.

This 21st century court — make that judicial center — speaks of security and efficiency. It almost could be described as welcoming in the way that a modern hospital is welcoming. And maybe that’s as it should be, because a kind of healing is aimed at in the judicial center.

The new building is certainly not ugly, nor is it purely utilitarian or institutional in appearance. In fact, it has a pleasing lightness and human scale, which is by design, Chief Justice Leigh Saufley explained on a recent tour. Color schemes were chosen to ease anxiety yet also to suggest a certain gravitas. Each of the seven courtrooms — which vary in size and shape, depending on their function — has some source of natural light, either through a window or skylight. Studies have shown that natural light eases anxiety, the chief justice said.

Family courtrooms include a semicircle desk with as many as nine seats and computer monitors, allowing the many parties and advocates — literally — a seat at the table. Electronic hardware allows videoconferencing with area jails. There are also plenty of mediation rooms, so lawyers can meet with clients privately instead of in the halls as it was in the old facility.

Security is integral to the design. The facility is essentially three parallel legs on three floors. The public lobby areas compose one leg. The courtrooms, conference rooms and clerk offices compose another. The third leg is in the rear and allows prisoners to be transported in and out by law enforcement officers without giving them access to the public. “The only way the three meet is in the courtroom,” Supreme Court Justice Warren Silver, who oversaw the project, said.

While the design separates public, staff and prisoners, the inherent concept is a move toward an integrated judicial system, linking the District and Superior courts. The facility also allows civil suits and motions from other courts to be heard in Bangor, when appropriate, thereby speeding the wheels of justice.

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