Constructing Courts: Architecture, the Ideology of Judging, and the Public Sphere
Yale University - Law School
Dennis E. Curtis
Yale University - Law School
Allison Anna Tait
Yale University - Yale Law School
May 27, 2011
Treatise on Law, Culture & Visual Studies Forthcoming
In several countries, governments have embarked on major building expansion programs for their judiciaries - exemplified in this discussion by the United States and France. The new buildings posit the courtroom as their center and the judge as that room’s pivot. These contemporary projects follow the path laid out in Medieval and Renaissance town halls, which repeatedly deployed didactic symbolism aiming to inscribe normative lessons. Dramatic depictions then reminded judges to be loyal subjects of the state.
In contrast, modern buildings narrate not only the independence of judges but also the dominion of judges, insulated from and celebrated by the state. Significant allocations of public funds to courthouse construction reflect the prestige accorded to courts by governments dispatching world renowned architects to design buildings aiming to be monuments to the state. The investment in spectacular structures represents a tribute to the judiciary but should also serve as a reminder that the ideology of judicial independence needs to be tempered by recognizing how dependent judges are on other branches of government for budgets and jurisdictional authority.
A double narrative comes as well from the design choices. The frequent choice of glass facades for new courthouses is valorized for denoting the accessibility and transparency of the law. Under democratic norms, “everyone” is entitled to public and fair hearings.But demands for adjudication are often met by way of ordinary tribunal and agency office buildings that have not received infusions of funds to mark their significance.
Moreover, courthouse interiors tell yet another story, in which segregated passageways (“les trois flux”) have become the norm. Substantial space and resources are devoted to isolating participants from each other. Further, administrative offices consume the largest percentage of the square footage. These floor plans represent the expansion of the bureaucratic apparatus within courts as well as the trends away from public adjudication and towards alternative dispute resolution. These rules promoting non-adjudicated outcomes raise questions about the continuing vitality of courtrooms as central to the experiences of litigants and jurists. Thus, new courthouse construction can be read to represent the mélange of practices now extant. But, without a re-commitment to public adjudicatory practices, these buildings risk becoming monuments to past aspirations of obligations of justification for law’s force.
Accepted Paper Series
Date posted: October 4, 2011
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