The state’s oldest standing courthouse came back to life in Stillwater on Friday if only for a brief, sunlit morning.

Couples ended their marriages Friday at the Historic Washington County Courthouse. A delinquent library book borrower got stung with a public judgment. And 85-year-old lawyer Jack Walsh, a bit of a local legend, won his first criminal case in the soaring courtroom in 40 years.

Washington County Judge Gregory Galler, whose idea it was to bring justice once again beneath the soaring ceiling, spoke of the experience as a return to grandeur in public architecture in an era of more pedestrian public buildings.

“There’s a simple elegance here,” Galler said, “a feeling of being somewhere important. These days people come to court in flip-flops, and it’s not the same. I like those cool TV courtrooms, where there’s a majesty suitable to the importance of the law.”

Galler got the idea to return live action to the room when he noticed last fall that the building’s groundbreaking had taken place in 1867.

“This building remained open for more than 100 years, until 1975,” Washington County Commissioner Gary Kriesel told a gathering of history buffs and a smattering of litigants who looked a bit bewildered to find their own modest proceedings turned a bit theatrical, with a long row of cameras in the back. “The last official proceedings here were in December 1974.”

A Minnesota Supreme Court justice had to approve a special petition to allow Walsh, who’s retired, to represent a defendant. His client, Ngulwe K. Alfani, stood accused of “public nuisance dumping” for an unauthorized deposit into someone else’s private dumpster in Woodbury. Walsh solemnly objected that no one even claimed to have seen the man do anything, and prosecutor Tom Weidner hoisted a white flag.

“Based on counsel’s arguments, the state will dismiss this case,” he said.

The case of Washington County vs. Cameron Matthew Sammet turned on unpaid library fines. The judge ordered him to pay up — $181.97 — then eyed the crowd. “Everyone, return your books today,” Galler said.

Frontier justice

The judge noted that the first court cases heard in Minnesota happened a few blocks away at the original courthouse in Stillwater, Minnesota’s birthplace in the logging days alongside the St. Croix River.

The second courthouse remains an imposing structure pitched up the hillside, with tall windows offering sweeping views over town. Modern courtrooms often don’t have windows; but then, they do have air conditioning, unlike the 19th century.

“I sit here thinking of what it would have been like in the summer with the windows open to a breeze,” Galler said. “All the sights and sounds of the out-of-doors, the cigar smoke. No courtroom any longer has this kind of view,” he said. “It would be too distracting.”