The Columbia County Justice Center has stood as a white-columned symbol of dignity and justice for a decade.
County officials christened the new courthouse in Evans 10 years ago Monday.
“It’s very difficult to believe it’s been 10 years,” said county Commission Chairman Ron Cross. “I can’t believe a decade has gone by that quickly.”
Since the courthouse opened in July 2002, it’s been home to many of the courts and services previously housed at the historic courthouse in the county seat of Appling.
Construction began in February 2000 and the first court session, in Probate Court, was held July 31, 2002. Cross’ company, CCI Construction, built the facility before he took office.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy helped dedicate the facility on Nov. 20, 2002.
On Feb. 12, 2007, the county commission named the plaza in front of the courthouse Charlie Norwood Plaza and renamed the entrance to the justice center Norwood Drive, in honor of U.S. Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Evans. Norwood died the next day after a long battle with cancer.
The building, which cost almost $14 million, houses four courtrooms, four hearing rooms, a grand jury room, a jury room, the clerk of court’s office and probate, juvenile and magistrate courts, as well as several other offices.
“It’s a very functional courthouse,” said Tom Gunnels, court administrator for the Augusta Judicial Circuit. “It’s a well-built, nice-looking courthouse.”
The courthouse is one-stop shopping for many residents needing county services.
“It did create a focal point for the public to come to,” Cross said. “A courthouse is always important to a county.”
Before it was the site of the county’s justice center, the property belonged to the Marshall family, which owned a lot of property nearby, said Superior Court Judge James G. Blanchard Jr.
“There was a big field there,” Blanchard said. “Kids would go over there and play.”
Blanchard said the only structure in that field was a navigation beacon for aircraft.
The convenience of the Evans courthouse is what those who use it enjoy most.
It was built in the county’s population center, which developed far from the rural Appling county seat.
“It’s wonderful trying cases out there,” said District Attorney Ashley Wright. “I love having an office there, being able to have a place to work when you’re in trial.”
The courtrooms are wired to accommodate technology and include monitors for judges, attorneys and jurors. Camera systems allow courthouse personnel to monitor all areas of the courthouse.
“It’s a state-of-the-art courthouse,” Blanchard said. “The jury rooms are safe and secure for the jurors. It is a great facility for the jury, a great facility to try a case.”
The four courtrooms, compared to one courtroom in the Appling courthouse, allow prosecutors to try more cases.
Wright said that serves victims well and ensures defendants get their constitutionally guaranteed right to a timely trial.
“Of course, the sooner we can move our jail population, the less it costs the taxpayers,” Wright said.
The courthouse is a pleasure to work in, Superior Court Judge Danny Craig said .
“The courtrooms afford the dignity that ought to be afforded to judicial proceedings,” said Craig, who was serving as district attorney when the facility opened. “The ultimate level of safety is always maintained within the courthouse.”
Most of the courts were granted more space in the move from the Appling to the Evans courthouses.
Clerk of Court Cindy Mason said she was relieved to have enough space for staff and files. Unfortunately, she said, space ran out quickly. She’s had to use another court’s storage space in the basement, and additional cases forced Mason to add staff.
“We’re sort of on top of each other and have been for a year or two,” Mason said. “For the most part, I still pinch myself. It’s a lovely facility. I’m so honored to be in it.”
Cross said some expansions to the courthouse are planned, including more space for Mason, another courtroom and improvements to the judges’ secure parking area. Funding and a timeline haven’t been finalized.