AUGUSTA — When the Maine Supreme Judicial Court sits in session at the Kennebec County Courthouse later this month, it will really be coming home.

The state supreme court first started there in 1830 and held regular sessions there until 1970, when it moved permanently to the Cumberland County Courthouse in Portland.

Now Associate Justice Joseph Jabar said he expects the court to hear oral arguments in cases in Augusta at least twice a year because the large, ornate courtroom in the historic building has been renovated and the bench was enlarged as part of the project that resulted in the new Capital Judicial Center.

The court also holds sessions twice a year at the Penobscot County Judicial Center in Bangor and generally sits at various high schools across the state for the October session.

The changes in the large courtroom in the Kennebec County Courthouse were masked as much as possible.

For instance, the judges’ bench has been lengthened a few feet on each side to allow seating for all seven justices on the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, which also is known as the law court. The new wooden section is feathered into the old, and a new wooden gate permits access to the attorney area from the back of the courtroom.

Consigli Corp., which built the new four-story judicial center, also did the renovation work on the older building.

“They’ve done a good job making sure it’s looked the way it’s always looked,” Jabar said.

Some changes are more obvious. Metal railings, painted tan to blend with the wood surrounding, line the handicapped-accessible walkways that reach to both sides of the judges’ bench. New cameras are mounted on the walls and new sprinkler and alarm systems are installed and operating.

Along with serving the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, the large courtroom will be available for jury and nonjury trials, and just about any proceeding as long as no participants are in custody, Jabar said. Other courtrooms in the new judicial center have secure facilities for handling cases involving people in custody.

The renovation of the historic building earned it a certificate of occupancy Thursday after an inspection by city and fire officials, a formality Robert Devlin, county administrator, found amusing.

“We’ve occupied it since 1830,” he said.

In fact, the staffs of the Kennebec County district attorney’s office and Kennebec County Probate Court, which occupy some of the first floor plus two floors of an adjacent wing, have been working in the older building all along.

The newly renovated courtroom, which lacks only the red curtains to mask the judges’ entryway and the portraits of jurists that are to be returned to the walls shortly, will be reached through two glassed-in bridges from the third floor of the Capital Judicial Center, which opened March 1.

“We kept as much as we could of the original,” Jabar said. “One of my favorite parts of the project is having the old courtroom connected with the new. If we located somewhere else, we would have had to turn this into a museum.”

All the work to erect the new courthouse, link it to older building and update the older building has taken place on time and a little under the $57 million budget, according to Jabar, who served as the liaison for the Maine Judicial Branch and chairman of the courthouse committee.

A formal open house and ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new courthouse is set for 2:30 p.m. Sept. 18.

“The courthouse is always an open house,” Jabar said. “It’s a public place.”

Following the brief ceremony, at which Gov. Paul LePage is expected, Chief Justice Leigh Saufley will invite visitors into a large multipurpose room on the second floor for light refreshments.

The renovations must be completed when the Supreme Judicial Court sits for the first of three days of oral arguments.

“It definitely will be ready by the 16th, when the law court comes to town,” Jabar said. Workers were still at the site on Thursday finishing myriad tasks.

The judges will have use of a wooden-floored conference room previously used for jury deliberations when cases were heard in the small courtroom. The renovation there left tall windows in place as well as a corner fireplace, a feature in a number of rooms, including the large courtrooms.

There are new bathrooms on the second floor of the older courthouse, occupying a section where Jabar worked in 1975 as the first elected district attorney in Kennebec and Somerset counties.

“I’ve tried more than 300 cases in this courtroom,” he said, adding that they include his time as defense attorney, district attorney and as superior court judge.

For the county’s part, Devlin said, the smaller courtroom still is being renovated and converted into offices.

The county, too, has ordered new windows for the large courtroom, but they are unlikely to be received and installed in time for the grand opening.

Devlin said the style of window selected is one that closely matches that seen on a lithograph of the county courthouse. Also, roof repairs to prevent leaking has been completed except for copper flashing on the ends, which is expected soon.

The county spent about $56,000 for materials, including the windows, using money from a capital improvement account that had been designated for courthouse renovation.

Betty Adams — 621-5631

[email protected]

Twitter: @betadams

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