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:
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.