An awe inspiring place provided to the Nebraska federal judiciary by the People

Yesterday, I drove to Omaha. In the morning, our quarterly meeting of the Nebraska Judicial Council (“judges meeting”) was held. We govern our court in a very unique and open way. See here for more. In the afternoon, I prepared for the weekend by sentencing two men to prison. This all occurred in the Roman L. Hruska United States Courthouse in Omaha.

Every time I enter that courthouse, I find the place awe-inspiring. It is ironic that the People have provided us with this iconic building but the legislative entity most responsive to the People, the House of Representatives, has recently thought it appropriate to deny the federal judiciary the pittance necessary to operate the federal courts and the beautiful buildings we judges are privileged and honored to occupy. Today, I thought it might be interesting to readers of this blog to learn more about the Hruska Courthouse and this post endeavors to provide a brief tutorial about the building.

The Hruska U.S. Courthouse was the first in the Nation commissioned under GSA’s Design Excellence Program. On October 24, 2000, thirteen years ago this week, the building was dedicated at a ceremony where hundreds of attendees heard the address of Justice Clarence Thomas. The Design Excellence Program seeks to improve the quality of public design by using a “key design” architect.

James Ingo Freed, of Pei Cobb Freed and Partners New York, New York, was selected as the key design architect. He was also the designer of the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. and the Ronald Reagan Federal Building (at Federal Triangle) in Washington, D.C. At the completion of the Holocaust Museum, ABC/Barbara Walters selected him as one the 10 Most Influential Americans. Mr. Freed, who I had the great pleasure of meeting at the dedication, was a visionary. His biography at the Pei Cobb Freed website is here.

Mr. Freed died in 2005 while suffering from Parkinson’s disease. I am told that he designed our building without being able to use his hands to draw. Indeed, proving his unusually strong commitment to the importance of our project, Mr. Freed came out from New York and attended our dedication while in a wheel chair. He was frail but extraordinarily bright of mind and spirit. My career law clerk, Jim Eske, spent the day and evening attending to his needs. Truly, Mr. Freed was a remarkable man and we are deeply honored that our building is associated with his name.

The Roman L. Hruska U.S. Courthouse houses the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, U.S. District Court, U.S. Bankruptcy Court, and court related agencies. The courthouse provides 9 courtrooms: 1 Appeals, 4 District, 1 Special Proceedings, 2 Magistrate, and 1 Bankruptcy.

The courthouse is a rectangular shaped structure, with an area carved out on the front to allow light into the interior atrium. A four-part atrium roof feature gives the building a unique profile, while allowing large skylights to illuminate the atrium.

The building has a total of six stories. Four stories are above grade at the West or front entrance, for a total of 30 meters (98 feet) to the top of the atrium roof feature. Six stories are above grade at the East, or back side of the courthouse, for a total of 39 meters (128 feet) to the top of the atrium roof feature.

The Hruska U.S. Courthouse has two bronze grilles by the distinguished sculptor Stephen Robin, of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which were funded by the 1/2 percent for art set-aside under the Art-in-Architecture program. The 22 1/2 feet tall by 5 1/2 feet wide bronze grilles are set into the pre-cast concrete column covers adjacent to the North and South sides of the monumental stairs in the atrium. The bronze grilles are allegorical figures of plants associated with the Midwest. The North grille represents corn/maize and goldenrod (the State flower of Nebraska). The South grille represents wheat and sunflowers.

The building is named after U.S. Senator Roman L. Hruska (August 16, 1904 – April 25, 1999). Unfortunately, and unfairly in my view, Hruska became the object of derision as a result of a poorly phrased remark about “mediocrity” and Judge G. Harrold Carswell’s failed nomination by President Nixon to the Supreme Court. That aside, Senator Hruska was widely regarded by those in the know as one of the most influential United States Senators in the last half of the 20th century when it came to matters involving the federal law and the federal judiciary. See, e.g., Robert H. Bork, Dedication: Senator Roman L. Hruska, Yale Law School, Yale Law School Legal Scholarship Repository (1976). As the New York Times observed at his death, Hruska “served 22 years as a conservative Republican senator from Nebraska” and, as the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, he “wielded considerable influence on the Judiciary Committee.” I got to know Senator Hruska near the end of his life when he quietly donated a large sum to fund the Nebraska Bar Foundation’s Roman L. Hruska Institute for the Administration of Justice. The Institute is devoted primarily to the study of federal law by bringing distinguished speakers to the University of Nebraska College of Law. Various legal luminaries have graced the Institute podium including Justices Kennedy, Breyer, Ginsburg and Thomas, and Michael D. Kirby, retired Justice of the Australian High Court.

Below, you will find several photographs of this beautiful building. I hope you enjoy them. Next time you’re in Omaha, let me know and we’ll provide the grand tour and a cheap lunch with a decent beer.


View from the West on a cold day




This is a photo of the courtroom I used yesterday. Save for the Court of Appeals Courtroom and the Special Proceedings Courtroom, the courtrooms throughout the building look pretty much like this. The jury box is to the right, and not pictured in this photo.

Here is the courtroom I used on Friday. It is typical of the four main trial courtrooms. The Special Proceedings Courtroom is similar but larger.  The jury box is to the right in this picture, and not shown.


14 responses

  1. Definitely a nice looking building, but the architecture critic in me kind of wants to say Freed could have done better (I’m a fan of Pei Cobb Freed’s more modern work). It definitely does capture the “imposing” feel common among court houses of all styles. I guess my main complaint is that it still captures even in it’s postmodern style too much of the neoclassicism prevalent in even modern government buildings (they often try too hard to straddle genres in that way) rather than going for a bold new direction.

    Not meaning to detract from the fact that it appears to be a very well executed space and definitely a nice one to work in, it just doesn’t sing to this fan of architecture in the way some other spaces do (I nearly went into that field before settling on web design/development).

    I wonder what Santiago Calatrava would do with a commission like this. 😉

  2. Sean,

    Thanks for interesting observations.

    Although I was not directly involved and thus have no personal knowledge, I understand that (1) there was push back from the government as the client seeking more,not less,neoclassicism from Freed as opposed to a more purely post-modern design; and (2) instead of a granite exterior, a brick exterior was pushed on Freed by a US Senator who objected to the cost of granite. Additionally, and for what is worth, the basic design concept works well for the judges.

    All the best.


  3. That really doesn’t surprise me at all. There’s certainly no accounting for design taste in the federal government. At least they let Pei do one right with the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art:

    If the sun painted an art museum

  4. Sean,

    “If the sun painted an art museum” is an absolutely beautiful photo of a stunning structure. Thanks very much.

    All the best.


  5. Matter of taste, indeed. I think the building looks pretty cool. (I’d prefer, though, instead of reaching for a “modern” style, solely for the sake of some sort of modernism, all Federal buildings were done in the Federalist style, and be done with it. But my sense of art is often pretty plodding.)

    However, I grew up in Illinois and Iowa, one of the major tornado alleys in the US. My first thought on seeing that four-part atrium roof was about how is that thing going to survive a tornado strike? My second thought was about much it must have cost to stress that thing so it could handle a tornado strike.

    Worth it though, especially given those interiors.

    Eric Hines

  6. Mr. Hines, I thought you might find this fact interesting. I used to work in the building. In case of a tornado drill the judges were directed to an underground level while their staff members were ordered to report to courtrooms on the upper floors. We found it so comforting to know that we were literally disposable.

  7. Mary,

    In Lincoln, everyone goes to the basement. As you may remember, I don’t participate in fire drills or tornado drills preferring instead to oppose “the man” otherwise known as GSA. All the best.


  8. Not so much, Ms Buckley. It’s that the Omahans were seeking to bury their judges in the rubble, while giving you staffers a chance at survival by ensuring you’re on top of the pile after the wind dies down.

    Besides, the upper floors give you a better view than the cellar of the show Nature is putting on for you.

    Eric Hines

  9. Thank you very much; that’s one of my favorites too (I even managed to sell a copy of it). Incidentally, that was taken the weekend before Obama’s first inauguration (I had Purple Zone tickets and was one of the lucky ones who actually made it in). It was cold as shit that day!

  10. It’s a great courthouse. I had the privilege of being there for the 2001 National High School Mock Trial finals, and I’ve never forgotten it. The team we coached was lucky to have 2 trials there; most of the trials were in the county courthouse because of the larger number of courtrooms. As functional and beautiful as it is, it also announces that justice is taken seriously there.

  11. I am glad you were able to see and use the courthouse. Incidentally, Senior Judge Lyle Strom, who has given so much to the Mock Trial program at the local, state and national level, continues to come to work everyday as he completes his 88th year on this world. He is truly Superman.

    All the best.


  12. You are exactly right about Judge Strom. I had a nice visit with him in Indianapolis this year. He was there to help judge this year’s national high school mock trial competition. He’s a very dedicated man. By the way, at the 2001 nationals in Omaha, these three people spoke to the students at the awards banquet — the state AG, who introduced the state governor, who introduced Warren Buffet. No host state has topped that before or since, and I assume Judge Strom had a hand in it.

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