For more than 50 years, Madera County Superior Court has been housed in a condemned elementary school, where everything from murder trials to traffic tickets are dealt with inside rooms originally used for learning history or math.
Inside the outdated building, it’s common to see billboards cluttered with cases, cracks in the paint, and convicted criminals walking in the same halls as the public, or even right by the chambers of a judge who just sentenced them.
Finally, after years of delays, the county is ready to open the doors on its new state-of-the-art courthouse next month and has invited the public to a dedication ceremony tomorrow at 5:30 p.m. in front of the building’s new location on 200 S. G Street in the City of Madera.
At a cost of $100.2 million, the four-story facility is set to open Sept. 4, and will have 10 courtrooms for everything from criminal divisions to civil hearings alongside modern computers that display case schedules, full traffic ticket desks, and a parking garage with 256 spaces next door.
Its other notable upgrades are numerous, and officials with both prosecution and defense have said they’re desperately needed.
Judge Ernest LiCalsi, a former district attorney for the county, pointed out additions as simple as modern projectors available inside every courtroom, instead of how attorneys currently rely on an old, wheeled projector like those seen in classrooms decades ago.
“Right now, in the current building, if it’s too hot in the courtroom, we have to call somebody to come in and adjust the temperature,” LiCalsi said. “That can all be done by the clerk now.”
Witnesses can use touchscreens to point out areas on photos where they saw someone running away from a crime, as another example, instead of using laser pointers or holding a printed picture up to the jury.
LiCalsi said the current courthouse, taken over by the county in the 1950s, used to be an elementary school and was never designed to house the judicial process.
He said former California Chief Justice Ronald George, who toured the building several years ago, called it “one of the worst” he’d ever seen.
“He said it was one of the worst, if not the worst as far as security because of the layout,” LiCalsi said. “But now, we’ll be up there with the best.”
All inmates will be held in the building’s basement, then transported by elevators next to each criminal courtroom adjacent to two separate holding cells away from public view.
The jury room gets a huge upgrade as well. The current room where jurors wait to be called into court houses hard plastic chairs inside a metal-walled trailer type of building, where it’s often hot, and unpleasant.
In the new courthouse, a large room with couches, multiple screens to play movies, vending machines, and desks, with WiFi support throughout the building, are available to help jurors relax or get their own work done while waiting to enter a courtroom.
“You actually feel pretty nice in here,” LiCalsi chuckled.
The building’s construction is also environmentally conservative, as much of it is constructed from county materials like stone from the Raymond Quarry, or Madera-area lumber sources.
LiCalsi said it will be great to preside over cases once the building opens, and he was excited the county will have a new point of pride.
“I started in that building as a deputy district attorney,” LiCalsi said of the old courthouse. “And I remember at the time somebody told me eventually we’re going to get a new courthouse. Well, 30 years later, we finally have, and it’s very exciting.”
Construction on the new courthouse began in 2012. Costs are covered through a combination of county money and grants.
In May of 2014, Gilbane Building Company, headquartered in Providence, Rhode Island, faced a notice of default by the state for a breach of contract in delayed construction of the courthouse.
Construction bonds, sold in 2012, were meant to jumpstart the project and in 2013, the building’s final steel beam was raised and placed, with a revised completion date for Summer of 2014.
But, due to continued delays - Gilbane claimed safety and water damage issues - the project was again pushed back which led to the default notice in May of 2014. In Summer of this year, a website criticizing Gilbane gave details on how the company continuously failed in its contract, but that site has since disappeared.
It appears that after more than three years, the courthouse will finally be open without any further delays.