FONTANA — One judge called the courtroom “a closet.”
Another described it as “notorious.”
Fontana Superior Court’s tiny Dept. 6 — created to ease excessive case loads at the courthouse — was so small that the audience area consisted of only three narrow benches.
With space so tight, defendants’ family members were forced to wait in the hallway, and could enter the courtroom only when their cases were called, Judge Arthur Harrison recalled this afternoon.
But with a Fontana courthouse expansion project nearly completed, Dept. 6 is gone.
Its former space is unrecognizable, having been converted into a conference room and office space for court reporters.
“With this expansion we’ve had the opportunity to undo that,” said Harrison, the supervising judge in Fontana.
County officials celebrated the expansion of the courthouse today with an open house, dedication ceremony and unveiling of a plaque to mark the $8.3 million project.
The number of courtrooms has been increased from six to eight, and construction of a ninth courtroom is expected to begin Monday, Harrison said.
The project also includes an expanded clerk’s office and a newly constructed jury assembly room.
“I think it is indeed show-off material,” Harrison said.
When the courthouse in Fontana first opened in the 1970s, it had only two courtrooms — enough to accommodate the city’s population at the time of about 20,000, according to a San Bernardino County news release.
With the city’s population booming in recent years to nearly 200,000, the courthouse became increasingly cramped, forcing Presiding Judge Douglas M. Elwell to create Dept. 6.
“Our courts were exceedingly overworked,” Harrison said.
In a brief speech during Thursday’s event, Elwell praised the expansion project’s “phenomenal changes and improvements.”
San Bernardino County Supervisor Paul Biane said funding for the project was divided 50-50 between the county and the state.