Crawford County Court of Common Pleas has entered into a new era with the opening of the county's new judicial center in downtown Meadville.
The four-story building, housing the county's court system and many court-related offices, formally was dedicated in a special session of court Tuesday morning with more than 150 people in attendance, including judges from neighboring counties and Justice Debra McCloskey Todd of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.
The formal ceremony marked the conclusion of about 20 months construction and years of planning and study to make the new judicial center a reality.
The county's three common pleas court judges — President Judge Anthony Vardaro, Judge John Spataro and Judge Mark Stevens — all expressed appreciation to all those involved in the project — from the county commissioners and other elected officials to staff to the builders to taxpayers.
The last major renovation of the Crawford County Courthouse was completed in 1954 when the courthouse was modernized with two courtrooms.
In December 2015, construction began on the $17 million judicial center next to the present courthouse on Diamond Park.
The new building features secured hallways and entrances for transporting prisoners as well as secured entrances for jurors plus much more space and separate areas for juvenile and family court proceedings.
When court proceedings were held in the courthouse, prisoners were transported through public hallways and public elevator and used public restrooms. Those waiting for family court and juvenile proceedings waited in public hallways where they potentially could have conflict with those with whom they were involved in a case or contact with those involved in criminal matters.
"I think we all recognize something had to be done, but these kinds of projects can't happen until the board of commissioners decided they could fund such a project — recognizing the need to carefully spend the taxpayers' money," Vardaro said.
The new building is designed to serve the public and those involved in the court system in both the efficient and safest way within a budget that the commissioners felt could be handled by county residents, Vardaro said.
"Rest assured that all of us involved in this project have been and continue to be aware we are spending taxpayer dollars that come all of our citizens and that every decision was made with that in mind," Vardaro said. County commissioners and architects worked with the courts to refine the project as it moved forward, he said.
The judicial center will be better able to serve the public as a whole, he said,
"No longer will our children be in the hallway (waiting) for some proceeding where they'll witness prisoners coming by in shackles and handcuffs," he said.
Spataro called the building "a major leap forward" for Crawford County and a far cry from the first court proceedings when the county was formed in 1800 from part of Allegheny County. The first court cases in Crawford County between 1800 and 1805 were held within the home of William Dick of Meadville at Water Street and Cherry Alley, he said.
"This is an impressive building and we're fortunate to have such a building," Spataro said. "This is a momentous day in the history of Crawford County."
Stevens said citizens should be proud of the judicial center "where justice is administered, where all parties feel they will be heard and treated fairly."
He added it should be a safe place to settle disputes that can't be settled on one's own and that rights are protected "even when unpopular or uncomfortable."
"This is a place where ideas and facts are more important than brute strength," Stevens said. "Where logical arguments beat out who you know."
Todd said it truly is a courthouse for the people thanks to a joint effort by county commissioners, staff and judges.
"All the years of hard work and planing is a model accomplishment for other counties in Pennsylvania to look to and for Crawford County to be proud of," she said.
Vardaro asked county commissioners to consider moving other court-related offices — adult probation, juvenile probation and domestic relations — into now open spaces within the courthouse to have them within closer proximity of the judicial center. Those offices are located outside the courthouse facility.
Keith Gushard can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at email@example.com.