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Published: Thursday, 10/22/2009

Ohio justices hold court at Paulding venue


PAULDING, Ohio - Elbow room was at a premium Wednesday as the Ohio Supreme Court convened inside the common pleas courtroom in the Paulding County courthouse.

The seven justices sat shoulder to shoulder behind the bench as high school students, attorneys, and other spectators packed into the jury box and gallery.

While the state's highest court might have been more comfortable in a larger venue, a high school auditorium perhaps, Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger said the court prefers to meet at the local county courthouse when it holds hearings outside Columbus, as it does twice a year as part of its off-site court program.

"Ideally, we like that to happen because then it gives the students the full flavor of what the Supreme Court is like," she said. "It gives the students the feeling of the court in session when they're actually in a courtroom."

The court heard oral arguments in four cases with students from Paulding, Antwerp, and Wayne Trace high schools sitting in on the fast-paced sessions.

Antwerp High School students, from left, Darcie Reinhart, Natalie Cottrell, and Megan Koppenhofer attended the proceedings. Antwerp High School students, from left, Darcie Reinhart, Natalie Cottrell, and Megan Koppenhofer attended the proceedings.

For Antwerp seniors Darcie Reinhart and Natalie Cottrell, it was the first time they had set foot in their county courthouse, a stately brick structure that was built in 1886 in the center of Paulding, a village of 3,595 people about 75 miles southwest of Toledo.

The girls said they were impressed with the volley of legal questions and answers that flew between the justices and the attorneys even if the case - a question of whether prosecutors must prove a defendant charged with escape was informed in court that he would be subject to post-release control - was pretty complicated.

As for their first courthouse experience, Darcie, 17, said she thought the courtroom would be bigger. Natalie said she hoped there would be a balcony where they could sit to view the court's proceedings.

Local historian Stan Searing said the original high-ceiling courtroom was much bigger. In 1978, it was split in two to create a courtroom for probate and juvenile cases, and the second-floor balcony that allowed visitors to peer down to the first floor was enclosed to create a conference room.

Despite the changes, the courthouse sports many of its original features - hardwood floors throughout, ornate tin ceilings, carved wood staircases, ancient vaults, original wood window shutters, and a regal-looking dome that can be seen as motorists approach downtown.

"We're just proud of this old gal, and we want to keep her," County Commissioner Ed Straley said of the courthouse, which fills a block in Paulding's downtown.

Mr. Searing, a retired Paulding school superintendent and former county administrator, led an effort earlier this year to create a Courthouse Heritage Fund that he hopes will help ensure the historic courthouse is maintained for years to come.

"Even in good times there's not enough money, especially in a small county, to maintain the courthouse," Mr. Searing said. "We had read about Seneca County fighting to save a building that's empty, fighting to save a building that's had some architectural damage to it. That's why we started this fund. We've got a responsibility to pass this on to other generations."

Nearly all of Paulding County's offices are still in the courthouse, although the commissioners have been moved to the renovated basement level.

While the building is not handicapped-accessible, Common Pleas Judge J. David Webb said court proceedings can be moved, when necessary, to the nearby, one-story County Court.

Mr. Searing and his wife, Barb, started the heritage fund with a $1,000 donation. It is managed by the Paulding County Area Foundation, and, as the principal grows, the investment income will be used for courthouse projects.

Mr. Straley said commissioners know they will have to continue investing money in the upkeep of the courthouse, but they hope to see the Courthouse Heritage Fund supplement the cost of projects as they become necessary.

"We hope this fund will grow and grow and grow for us and maybe the next generation can use it more efficiently that we can," he said.

"This is a piece of art. I could not visualize it ever being torn down."

Mr. Searing said that unlike some northwest Ohio courthouses that were built from sandstone and decked out in marble, the Paulding County courthouse is more understated.

"It fits our community," he said. "It's appropriate for where we live."

Contact Jennifer Feehan:

at jfeehan@theblade.com

or 419-724-6129.

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