The court in Lake County was originally held in the schoolhouse in Libertyville. In 1841, when the county seat was moved to Little Fort (Waukegan), court was held in the Kingston Building, located on the bluff.
The first public building erected in the new county seat was a city jail erected by Burleigh Hunt in 1842.
It soon became evident that Lake County was in need of a structure to be specifically designated as a courthouse. When the new county commissioners decided to buy a plot of land on which to build a courthouse, the $200.00 in gold necessary for the purchase was loaned to them by Elmsley Sunderlin, who had been one of the supporters of the project moving the county seat from Libertyville. Part of the ceremony celebrating the moving from Libertyville consisted of planting a cedar post at the spot considered the highest piece of ground in Little Fort. This was the southeast corner of section 21, on Sheridan Road.
In 1843 the County contracted for a building to be built on that spot. The new courthouse was to be 40’ x 60’, cost $3,800.00 and be completed by October 1844, in time for the fall term of court. The project was, however, not completed until 1845.
In 1853 a small brick building was erected near the courthouse to hold the clerk's records and files. This later proved to have been providential, because on October 21, 1875 the courthouse caught fire. There is evidence that some people who did not appreciate the architecture and who believed that Lake County needed a larger more modern facility watched the courthouse burn in lieu of fighting the fire. The destruction of the courthouse left Lake County void of an appropriate facility in which to hold court. Hence, a courthouse was built in 1878 on County Street in Waukegan on the site where the courtyard of the present courthouse is located. The cost of the building, which had one courtroom, was about $40,000. While the courthouse was being built, court was temporarily held at Phoenix Hall on Washington Street in Waukegan.
George Kirk, Chairman of the Building Commission, was presented with a gold headed cane by the Board of Supervisors as a token of their appreciation for his completing the building within the appropriation.
In 1895 the first telephone was installed in the courthouse; in the beginning one phone had to do for the entire building. In 1901, cement sidewalks replaced the dirt yard of the courthouse square.
During the first World War, in 1917, a government radio receiving station was placed in the courthouse to receive messages from ships in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The messages were then carried to the Great Lakes Station.
Eventually the courthouse proved to be too small. In 1923 work was begun on badly needed additions to the main courthouse building. In time, even this was not sufficient to meet the needs of the growing county. In 1958 an attempt was made to relieve the overcrowded condition of the courthouse; a bond referendum was held which was decisively defeated by the voters. As a temporary solution, the one large courtroom was divided into two smaller courtrooms. Eventually, in 1969, the current courthouse was built. It is located on County Street in Waukegan. This courthouse was built around the then existing courthouse, which was not torn down until completion of the current courthouse. The courthouse was not built, however, without legal battle.
For soon after the referendum was defeated legislation had been passed permitting a Public Building Commission to issue revenue bonds. The Lake County Public Building Commission was established, and after careful study it was determined that a courthouse complex was needed. This was to be an eleven million dollar project. The project was started but a suit was filed testing the constitutionality of the Commission and the enabling legislation. After a long delay, the suit filed by attorney Paul Hamer, which named Robert Bowman on behalf of himself and all the other taxpayers of Lake County as plaintiffs, was dismissed. Another suit was then filed by Attorney Hamer challenging the constitutionality of the Commission on 17 grounds.
The State's Attorney, with the help of the Lake County Bar Association, defended the action. A counter-claim filed on behalf of the Bar Association sought to restrain Robert Bowman and all other taxpayers from instituting further litigation. Judge Seidel of the Circuit Court of Kane County, who was assigned the case by the Illinois Supreme Court, granted the counter-claim and signed the injunction order. Appeal by the plaintiffs to the Illinois Supreme Court followed, but the court denied the appeal. Following other legal hurdles, the opinion approving the bonds was issued and construction of the current courthouse complex began; after 1282 working construction days, the building, dedication of which occurred on May 1, 1970, was completed. The Lake County Courthouse Complex contains a four story courthouse, a ten story county administrative building and a four story jail.
In the mid '70's, the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts initiated and funded a pilot program for Court Administrators. The program proved to be a success and the Court Administrator position became permanent in 1975 funded by Lake County.
The Administrator and his professional staff are appointed by the Circuit Judges of Lake and McHenry Counties and work directly under the auspices of the Office of the Chief Judge. All court operations of the Administrative Office of the Courts are under the direction of the Administrator. In addition to managerial responsibilities, the Administrator is charged with analyzing statistical data and space needs and long-range planning and development.
In 1984, the Administrator, now known as Executive Director, became a member of the planning committee for a new Jail/Courts Building. Regular meetings with architects were held during the following year and in 1986 groundbreaking for a new Lake County Jail/Courts Building took place south of the main courthouse at 20 South County Street. This new building would consist of a four story modern pod-designed jail (with a fifth story shell for the future). The design of the building was also to include housing for three criminal courtrooms, judges' chambers, jury rooms, a secretary's office, court reporter offices and a small law library.
In 1996, the structure that had been the old jail was completed rehabilitated and reconfigured. Six new courtrooms with jury deliberating rooms, chambers and anterooms were constructed along with multiple conference rooms. A new Jury Assembly room with a lounge and restrooms was also built. The Circuit Clerk's Offices, staff and storage were relocated in the lower level of lower level of the facility.
In September 1998, the main courthouse complex was reconfigured and courtrooms and support facilities were upgraded. Two new courtrooms and several meeting rooms were added to the first floor. The Law Library was expanded and relocated adjacent to the rotunda at the central core of the building. Kid's Korner, the children's waiting room, was expanded and relocated off the first floor court house corridor.