A stunning courtroom

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)]

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.


16 responses

  1. A courtroom should be a thing of beauty. I think that the ugly court rooms designed and built in the last 50 years have had an impact, if not one susceptible to measurement, on the quality of justice meted out in them.

    I practice in the Charleston Division of the District of South Carolina. We have a newer building that is besotted with uninspired, windowless courtrooms. And then there is Courtroom 3, where one of the longest serving judges of the federal judiciary (42 yeas, and counting), Sol Blatt, Jr., presides in the “historic” portion of the courthouse. High, finely detailed ceilings (which, admittedly, leak and peel in the Charleston torrents and humidity), tall windows and an oak-paneled bench. I am lucky to say it’s the only of our courtrooms where I’ve ever tried cases before a jury.

    And if I let myself be aware in the midst of a hearing of the cultural significance of the room, it is almost to much to bare. To the left of my perch at defense counsel table, there is a portrait of Judge Waties Waring. Judge Waring was the lone dissenter in the civil rights test case of Briggs v. Elliott (later consolidated with Brown v. Board of Ed.) argued in this very same courtroom 60 years ago. Argued, by Thurgood Marshall, no less. If I let myself think of all that was done here and of all that is left to be done in this wonderful room and others like it around the country, it is almost too much to handle.

    Beauty matters. Especially in so ugly a pursuit as the law can sometimes be.

  2. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.” Matt. 23:27.

    Frankly, given the decrepit state of our legal system, these marvelous edifices offend me. I would rather that our system of adjudication be beautiful, and our buildings humble.

  3. Dear Cameron,

    Your writing is stunning. “Beauty matters. Especially in so ugly a pursuit as the law can sometimes be.”

    Thank you for taking the time to comment.

    All the best.


  4. Sometimes typos can add to the meaning of a myth. Go to it, Ken. Form over function. Like some religions of yore, Gods rule in these rooms based on fear, sitting on high in black robes, behind wooden benches. Only lawyers can approach after a verbal knee bend. No due process when you cannot hear in the back rows. And when you can, no commentator explains and no scoreboard reports. Open courtrooms be damned if you have to strain to see and hear. And so what if you can, if you cannot understand. The beauty of a courtroom, like the press of the pants or the knot in the tie have little to do with respect for the 6th Amendment. But it is beautiful. Banks used to be beautiful, too.

  5. I have heard similar comments about school buildings. The schools built 100 years ago far outshine the school buildings built in the last 50 years. I agree that surroundings do make a difference, both in schools and in the often “ugly” business of law.

  6. And just one more comment, to thank the Library of Congress for the shot. Damn, I wish I could take the photo, especially one with you on the bench, presiding. Oops. That’s not allowed. Hmmmm. So if I am not there and if you hadn’t posted this, I never would have gotten to see this hallowed hall.

  7. Rich, is that the courtroom named for my friend Judge Don O’Brien? I was there when it was dedicated to him, but I honestly don’t remember the room vividly. Judge O’Brien is pushing or at 90 now, but still coming to work. I have, I believe, sent him at least a dozen clerks over the years, and launched just as many promising careers as a result. He might be the last living “swing” appointee, as I believe he was appointed to both the Northern and Southern Districts of Iowa (by LBJ is memory serves. It seems likely that you two are acquainted, but if you see him please do pass on to him my warmest greetings. Best, Pat.

  8. Pingback: A Courtrooom Too Stunning | Simple Justice

  9. Judge Kopf – Thanks for posting the photo of this beautiful courtroom. I hope you enjoy your trial in such impressive surroundings. Elaine Mittleman

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