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Mariposa County Courthouse: Historic Justice in the West
In continual use since 1854.
Mariposa County Courthouse, the white frame sentinel of a small foothill community, stands silently in its Greek Revival elegance, waiting for the next tumult to come and go.
Hearings, trials , and other legal proceedings have filled the old courtroom for more than 160 years with judicial officers, deputies, lawyers, media representatives and spectators as the wheels of justice continue to turn.
It is the oldest U.S. courthouse west of the Rocky Mountains which has been continuously used for its original purpose.
Now and then the county debates the need for a new and modern facility, but to this day, it has not happened.
The building remains an icon that recalls the early years of the California Gold Rush.
Inside the starkly plain courtroom which fills most of the second story of this historical landmark, an orderly arrangement of sturdy antique chairs and straight-backed benches speaks of equality and the persistence of legal tradition.
There has been an effort to keep the original look, and not let modern improvements change the appearance.
The benches are made of heavy pine planks, locally harvested wood that was finished with painted wood grain pattern to give it the look of more expensive oak.
The original structure was put together in 1854 without nails, using an interlocking mortise and tenon construction system.
Courtroom wood-burning stove.
The large upstairs room is as simple and straightforward as the ideal of absolute justice.
The large room was once heated by a wood-burning stove
-- too hot when you are close to it, too cold when you are far away.
Early morning sun glows through multi-paned windows and produces an aura reflected from polished wood surfaces, almost suggesting that former contesting spirits still linger here.
Hand planed boards, marked by the tools of the original builders, overlay all of the walls and ceilings.
In the cloakroom behind the main room there is a ladder to the clocktower so someone can reset the weights every three days to keep the tower clock running.
In the courtroom, the walls impassively witness gruesome evidence, emotional testimony, and the fervent contentions of lawyers, as the clock chimes each hour.
These walls have heard such things for many years.
For over a century and a half, the Mariposa courtroom here in gold country, has been filled with testimony relating to mining disputes, property rights, fraud, divorce, robbery, abuse, murder and every possible form of mortal strife.
Yet, despite the distressing human dramas argued there, it retains its simple, almost severe, dignity.
In California's earliest days of statehood, decisions made here on mining controversies set precedent for much federal mining law. Successive generations of jurors sitting in the sturdy armchairs, have deliberated concerns of property, and human rights as well as life and death matters.
Several rounds of litigation regarding the property and mineral rights of John C. Fremont, involved a back and forth battle which eventually landed in the United States Supreme Court.
Fremont, who had bought his grant under Mexican law, found that his ownership and rights were in dispute. He won his case.
Millionaire John Hite, whose Native American wife, Lucy, sued for divorce, found he was not above the law and was ordered to pay alimony though he tried to argue that they were not legally wed.
They had been married in accordance with tribal custom, which the court found to be valid.
Willie Ross, accused of murder in 1878 was tried, convicted and sentenced to life in prison, from this room.
In his furious relocation to a larger jail in neighboring county, he and his escorting deputy barely escaped an armed mob of "rangers" who wanted nothing less than blood to avenge the crime.
View from the Jury Box
Many others who dared to disregard the law learned their fate here.
The judge's bench became a sounding board that sought to bring legal harmony out of discord.
The courthouse building virtually takes on the persona of a wise and elderly jurist who has seen much, yet patiently waits for the scales of justice to balance.
The judge's bench is wide, because in earlier days three judges sat behind it.
Minor changes have been made to accommodate modern technology including computers, electric lights and updated climate control systems, but these things are mostly hidden from view.
When the more convienient indoor restrooms were added early in the 20th century, they were still in keeping with the overall style of the building.
There has been a consious effort to make sure the original historic look of the building-- inside and out-- remains the same.
The courtroom's only adornments are understated and symbolic. Portraits of Jefferson and Lincoln gaze intently from the wall behind the judges chair, between the flags of the country and the state.
Here in the early morning hours, is the quiet before the next legal storm.
Many thanks to photographer Linda Gast, who took all of these photos and granted permission for use in this article.