Court is now in session

There was a time, not so long ago, when the 5th District Court of Appeal shared the fifth floor with the cafeteria in downtown Fresno's State Building.

Those days are long gone.

On Thursday, the appellate court dedicated a new building, this one with three stories and 61,000 square feet.

The growing court will share the building at Ventura and O streets with nobody.

"It's a thrill and an honor to be able to work in such a gorgeous courthouse," said Justice Herbert Levy, who has been on the appellate court for a decade.

Thursday's dedication marked the end of a process that began nearly 13 years ago when Presiding Justice James Ardaiz drew his idea for a new appellate court on a napkin.

The design is a mix of traditional Greek and modern architectural elements. The building surrounds an interior courtyard containing the courthouse where the justices will hear appeals.

Two sides of the courthouse are connected to the larger surrounding building, and the other two sides are landscaped to resemble a Yosemite meadow and both granite and natural woods.

The building is named after longtime Fresno legislator and jurist George Zenovich, who recalled the cramped quarters of the State Building in his comments -- and commented on how different the new building is.

"When you walk through this building," he said, "you're going to be amazed."

The grand opening drew several hundred people on a sunny, breezy afternoon, including several prominent members of the Valley's legal community and a smattering of politicians.

Among them were Attorney General Jerry Brown, Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, Mayor Alan Autry, former Rep. Richard Lehman, U.S. District Court Judges Oliver W. Wanger and Anthony W. Ishii, several Fresno County Superior Court judges and well-known local attorneys such as Anthony Capozzi and Robert Koligian Jr.

As happy as the justices and employees of the 5th District court were, Fresno city officials were equally joyous because the building's completion is the first in what planners have dubbed Old Armenian Town.

"This is a very important part of downtown revitalization," Autry said in an interview.

He said it will help jump-start not only Old Armenian Town, but also redevelopment in another corner of downtown.

Fresno City Council Member Larry Westerlund agreed.

"This is a great start for this section of downtown," he said.

The 5th District was established in 1961 and includes nine counties -- Fresno, Tulare, Kings, Madera, Mariposa, Merced, Kern, Tuolumne and Stanislaus.

For its first 39 years, the court was located in the State Building on the Mariposa Mall.

But it slowly outgrew that location. Between the mid-1970s and late 1980s, the appellate court expanded from three justices to eight.

In 1987, the state Legislature agreed to add a ninth justice in an attempt to reduce a backlog of more than 700 cases. The court now has 10 associate justices.

The court moved to leased space at 2525 Capitol St. in 1990. That building now sits in the shadow of the new federal courthouse.

The new building is built to last, both Ardaiz and Zenovich noted. It has room for expansion. And, Zenovich said, it will honor the Armenians who settled in the area more than a century ago.

"This is really an honor," Zenovich said, "not only for me and for the city of Fresno, but for the Armenians who began coming here back in the 1880s."