ST. MARTINVILLE — The historic antebellum St. Martin Parish Courthouse is equipped for the future after undergoing more than $4.5 million in renovations.
The courthouse reopened to the public late this summer after three years of renovation work that updated the building with new technology and created two new courtrooms and new judicial offices.
“It was always our commitment to ensure that when the (project) was completed that we would have a facility that served the needs of the public and be able to accommodate technology to 2050 standards,” said Chester Cedars, assistant district attorney for the 16th Judicial District, which covers St. Martin, St. Mary and Iberia parishes.
The historical features of the building, constructed in 1853, such as its marble and wooden finishes and its columned facade, were preserved during the work.
The project was funded by a $7.9 million bond issue approved by voters in October 2005 that also included construction of a courthouse annex building and a senior citizen center. When the projects escalated to nearly $12 million following hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the state pitched in the difference, Cedars said.
Prior to the renovation, the building’s first floor housed parish offices of clerk of court, tax assessor and registrar of voters. Those offices are now located in an annex building completed in 2010 that is adjacent to the courthouse.
Visitors will now find the District Attorney’s Office, previously located on the second floor, on the first floor of the building. A new jury selection room and a grand jury room that doubles as a conference room are also now located on the first floor.
Before the renovation, the second floor also held a main courtroom and a meeting room that also doubled as a makeshift courtroom for hearings.
Historic features in the main courtroom, such as wooden molding on the walls and wooden benches were refurbished in the project, and the makeshift courtroom is now a jury trial courtroom.
A smaller third courtroom for hearings also was constructed in the second floor space. Large judicial suites also are located on the second floor.
Updates include new technology such as a video surveillance system and interactive courtroom monitors that enable attorneys to more easily display evidence. The building is wired to feed live proceedings from the upstairs courtroom onto a monitor in the jury selection room.
In the courtrooms, monitors are mounted in the jury boxes. Interactive features of the new technology provide a “sidebar button” that pumps white noise into the courtroom for the judge and attorneys to have private conversations in a normal tone.
A new elevator was installed in the building. The update created the need for a side wing addition to the front of the building. Another wing was added to the other side of the building to create symmetry. The additions offer more natural light into the building’s first floor and provide a view of Main Street.
The renovated facility has improved scheduling of hearings and trials, he said.
“Not only has it increased convenience, but it has also given us the mechanism where we can now adjudicate cases and matters more quickly, which was a big problem when you only have one courtroom,” Cedars said.
This week, juries were selected for both a criminal and civil trial, he said.
“We will now have two jury trials taking place at the same time. That’s probably the first time that’s happened in St. Martin Parish, at least in my 30 years of practicing law,” Cedars said. “That gives you a perspective of how nice it is for us. Not only are we having the ability to accommodate the public and litigants more expeditiously, but we’re also doing so in a state-of-the-art facility.”