A Courtrooom Too Stunning

There is a beauty in old structures. Houses, public buildings, even courtrooms. Especially old courtrooms, perhaps. Whether simple and utilitarian or ornate and majestic, they reflect our history. And yet, as with history itself, they sometimes reflect mistaken ideals.

Judge Richard Kopf, at Hercules and the Umpire, was off to preside over a trial in Sioux City, Iowa, in a courtroom he described as “stunning.”

This week and next, I have the privilege of using  the stunning old but restored federal courtroom in Sioux City, Iowa to try a jury case. It is pictured below:

Photo credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, photograph by Carol M. Highsmith [LC-DIG-pplot-13725-01364 (digital file from LC-HS503-489)]

Even during the depression, the People instinctively understood that federal courtrooms should be both practical and beautiful at the same time. This Iowa federal courtroom is an absolute treasure.

Practical and beautiful is a combination that, on paper, can’t be beat. No doubt such a courtroom is a pleasure for the judge, forced to sit there for hours on end listening to the droning of lawyers, mounted on his elevated bench, pondering the craftsmanship of the coffered ceiling and paneled wainscoting.  During the depression, there was no shortage of carpenters in need of work and food, and it would have been a terrible waste not to seize the opportunity to use cheap labor to construct federal courtrooms.

Like Judge Kopf, I think it’s beautiful too.  It’s unclear why it’s practical.  Maybe it’s fair to assume the room has good acoustics, rather than the echo that makes so many courtrooms a nightmare, or the dead spots where you can’t hear what the judge or a witness is saying.  Even worse are those courtrooms where a whisper at the defense table can be heard clearly by judge, prosecutor and jury.

To find such a beautiful courtroom in a place like Sioux City is somewhat surprising. Iowans were known as a practical people, less inclined toward the needlessly majestic than toward the utilitarian.  But then, this was a federal courtroom, so perhaps the decision to make it rival Newport’s The Breakers failed to consider local sensibilities.

Most courthouses are modeled after ancient temples. Some call them “temples of justice” to justify the odd architectural choice, but most rationalize the overwrought design as a means of portraying power, stability and majesty. The majesty of the law. The majesty of the government that makes the law.  It’s awesome, and designed to convey that awesomeness to all who see it.

Much as I enjoy and appreciate historic architecture as much as the next guy, even if he happens to be an Article III judge, it would be better seen from behind a velvet rope than from the defendant’s table or the jury box.  These majestic courtrooms are an historical mistake, the physical embodiment of a terribly misguided understanding of what is supposed to happen in that room.

When asked what he wanted to be called, George Washington rejected grand titles, insisting instead that he be addressed as Mr. President. It reflected his sense of the humility of the office of head servant.  Yet judges wear robes of office, sit on high benches and preside in rooms designed to convey majesty.

Jurors sit in these rooms, eyes wide as they look at grandeur beyond anything else in their lives.  The message is clear. They are there to serve a purpose so powerful, so rich, so majestic, that they can do nothing but stare in awe and silence.  It’s not their room. It’s not a room of the people, but a room of the government, which has deigned to let them sit in their seats for a brief period of time until the government no longer needs them.

And the defendant sits in a room grand beyond anything he’s ever seen before. No home so beautiful would ever let him in. He would have no justification to enter a room so large and overwhelming, except a courtroom.  Whether he’s a large man or petite, he’s puny inside a room of that size, trivial and powerless.  And yet, he still looks utterly out of place, a ragamuffin within a room designed for greatness.

If there was ever any question of who has the power before, there is no question from the inside of a courtroom.

In my imagination, courtrooms of a nascent United States were humble places, designed to reflect the seriousness of the task and the humility of those chosen to perform it.  It would seem that rooms designed by Jefferson or Washington ought to reflect their rejection of the trappings of aristocracy.  But then, courtrooms were never really designed that way.  Sure, there were simple rooms, but of necessity rather than choice.  Whenever the opportunity presented itself, grandeur prevailed to make sure everyone who entered a courtroom understood who had the power.

The courtroom in Sioux City is, as Judge Kopf says, quite beautiful.  And likely very practical, provided that one defines practical as serving the purpose of assuring that everyone who entered appreciates that it is a room of the government, a very powerful government, and the people are allowed to enter it to do the government’s bidding.

It is a stunning courtroom.  It should not be.

17 comments on “A Courtrooom Too Stunning

  1. Turk

    In the photo, I see computer monitors and a big screen. There also appears to be carpet on the floor, which would help with the acoustics.

    Perhaps this is what he means by practical?

    I’ll take that kind of courtroom over appearing in some of the awful old courtrooms we have in NY with their crappy acoustics and last century’s technology (poster board) for displaying exhibits.

    1. SHG Post author

      So you think he was referring to the computer monitors and big screen when he described the courtroom as “stunning”? I suspect not. Conflating architectural majesty with technological utility probably isn’t useful, and certainly isn’t relevant to the point of the post.

      1. Turk

        I was only referring to the “practical” part. We have lots of stunning courtrooms in NY (Bronx and New York Supreme courts) that are impractical.

        1. SHG Post author

          You were projecting your definition of practical onto Judge Kopf. I have no clue why you would feel compelled to make such a blind assumption, but you did. It just doesn’t seem to have anything to do with anything. Since monitors and screens are accoutrements that have zero to do with the structure, and can be installed or removed in pretty much any structure, this seems to come totally out of left field.

          On the other hand, you may be right even though I don’t see the connection.

  2. noah

    In the Persian palaces in the DC District court annex and the EDVA, the exhibition of power and “majesty” you describe is even more overt. The judges sit up on an elevated dias in a huge massive gleaming bench high above the court. It reminds me of how an emperor would sit if he were to sit behind a desk as he heard entreaties. The wells in these courts are large but impractical and not meant for lawyers to walk around in, as there are quite large counsel tables as well (but you can easily have four or more counsel and defendants if need be).

  3. John Neff

    I recall hearing a PD say that a courthouse was a special purpose office building and a courtroom was a room with desks, tables and chairs. Needless to say that statement went-in-one-ear-and-out-the-other. If you have a TV camera you can make the courtroom smaller and more secure by having the audience view the trial from a remote location.

    When a tornado put our courthouse out of service for a few days initial appearance was held on the courthouse lawn by moving some tables and chairs outside.

    I have seen some old county courthouses that were converted into museums where the courtrooms were elegant so it is not just federal courthouses that can be spiffy.

  4. Marc R

    Great piece! Very nice, Scott. Actually reminds of a courthouse in northern Florida that looks like something out a plantation-era set. Phenomenal woodwork throughout, a sense of the history, it’s intimidating even for the city lawyer for the reasons you articulate. I get intimidated just getting a whiff of what the juror, witnesses and defendants feel.

    Perhaps the best way to flip it, or maybe I’m doing it wrong, is to inform the jury this is their home. They have the power given them in the constitution to sit there as if they own it and to determine who’s telling the truth and/or what they want to happen in the case. Let them feel the ownership of that power and majesty and hopefully they’ll reward you and your client for empowering them by reminding them they are the gov’t and your client needs them.

    1. SHG Post author

      That may be a bit aspirational. You can tell a jury it’s their house, but the room and bench say otherwise.

  5. Jim Majkowski

    Even during the depression, the People instinctively understood that federal courtrooms should be both practical and beautiful at the same time.

    Of that I’m skeptical.

    During the depression, there was no shortage of carpenters in need of work and food, and it would have been a terrible waste not to seize the opportunity to use cheap labor to construct federal courtrooms.

    With that I enthusiastically agree . And there were other skilled and underused artisans as well, and it might have been a wise decision to have the government provide demand for their services not then present in the private sector. And it might also have been a wise decision to beautify the cities with handsome architecture instead of ugly utilitatian structures (Detroit’s McNamara Federal Building (which houses no Article III or even bankruptcy court) is ugly almost beyond belief). And is it so bad that decisions of such magnitude be made in places whose appearances connote that importance?

    Our eloquent blawger says, and I concur, the tasks there to be performed are of the utmost seriousness, and that those chosen to perform the duties ought ever be mindful of the enormous responsibility that comes with their awesome authority. Attributed to Mr. Lincoln are two quotations that may be apt:

    1. Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power; and
    2. No man is good enough to govern other men without that man’s consent.

    The buildings are great. As for the occupants …

  6. JohnnyApplecedar

    I disagree and perhaps it is because I am likely the oldest participant in this Comment chain (older even than the judge). To me, it isn’t some intimidating majesty of the sovereign that is implicated by the splendor of the Sioux City courtroom. Rather it is the requirement for civility that such surroundings seem to impose. When I began practice and was required to visit the state courts of Harris County, Texas, the courtrooms were not impressive and the background hubbub in the presence of a judge trying to deal with a crowded docket. I just could not imagine that occurring in a venue such as we see in Sioux City.
    It brings to mind a Thanksgiving many years ago when a family member suggested to my wife and me that the dress code for Thanksgiving dinner should be “casual” as opposed to the more rather formal requirements (boy’s collar and tie and girl’s dresses) of prior years. We have four boys. With the nieces and nephews, a relatively large contingent was able to continue play modes and generally make the dinner less pleasant all around. The next year we returned to the old rules and everyone, including all the kids, seemed to have a more enjoyable experience.
    Civility, it seems to me, is an important aspect of the practice of law in any venue. If ornate ceilings and wainscoting can assist to this end, I applaud it.

    1. SHG Post author

      I’m unaware of any federal courtroom I’ve ever been in, anywhere in the country, where civility wasn’t the rule regardless of the architecture. Perhaps Harris County courts are a little different. State courts in New York are also a bit rougher around the edges.

      That said, if the tradeoff was between civility and a trial where the jury wasn’t cowed by the majesty of the government, I would pick the latter. Civility doesn’t not trump fundamental fairness for me. On the bright side, the two are not mutually exclusive.

  7. JohnnyApplecedar

    I guess my perspective comes from the fact that I was seldom required to confront the magisterial power of a Federal prosecutor. I did civil cases and the majesty of the courtroom did not affect the climate as much as SHG implies. The comment may be right. I know this: In fifty plus years of practicing law, I never met a DA or prosecuting lawyer who I would invite to dinner in my house. Maybe it isn’t the ceiling or the wainscoting. Maybe the prosecutorial function attracts too many individuals who are totally unworthy of any such enhancement, or totally unworthy period. If the wainscoting and ceiling cows the jury to favor the such individuals, I am inclined to agree with SHG.

    1. SHG Post author

      As federal judges love to remind us, it’s the “totality of the circumstances” that matter. We have the capacity to address all aspects, from bad prosecutors (and they’re not all bad) to majestic architecture, and aren’t limited to picking only one.

  8. Dan

    Something about 500 Pearl Street makes me say to myself damn, this is what they’re referring to when they talk about the awesome power of the state, almost every time I’m in there.

    1. SHG Post author

      Unlike Foley Square, which had some smaller, more humble courtrooms (like Pierre Leval’s old courtroom), 500 Pearl is a temple of marble and wood. No one can miss its awesomeness.

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