IU Maurer School of Law
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
April 6, 2009
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Yale Law Professor Judith Resnik, delivering the 2009 Harris Lecture at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law on March 31, argued that today's opulent federal courthouses are not designed to efficiently carry out justice, but rather to serve as elegant reminders of how powerful the American federal court system is.
"I would argue that our federal courthouses today are not monuments to adjudication, but rather to federal power," Resnik said. "They're icons of federal authority."
Today's federal courthouses, Resnik said, provide a stark contrast to their early predecessors. Gone are the boxy structures of the late 19th century, replaced by curvy, majestic buildings made of glass and steel. But as former U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist oversaw the building spree of the modern federal courts system, the courts themselves were essentially building barriers for plaintiffs to get cases heard there.
Resnik's presentation, "Building the Federal Judiciary (Literally and Legally): The Monuments of Chief Justices Taft and Rehnquist," demonstrated that while America's federal courthouses have gotten bigger and grander, they are being used less for formal proceedings, even as case filings increase. The modern federal courthouse, at least visually, implies a sense of lengthy and important trials when, in fact, such trials rarely get held anymore, Resnik said.
Resnik traced the history of America's federal courthouses, noting that, as recently as 80 years ago, many served as joint centers with other institutions, such as post offices or jails. That changed with Chief Justice William Howard Taft's successful bid in 1929 to have the U.S. Supreme Court constructed. Though Taft died before the building's completion, he spurred a building spree throughout the federal judiciary.
"Courthouses became monumental in the 1930s," Resnik said. "Chief Justice Taft should be seen as the architect of the Supreme Court and the federal court system."
As the court system grew, so too did the size of its buildings. In addition to growing in scale, the magnitude of the projects also became more important, Resnik said. When William Rehnquist became chief justice of the Supreme Court in 1986, he began successfully lobbying Congress for more money to build bigger and more impressive courthouses across the country.
"In far too many jurisdictions, cases must be adjudicated in inadequate buildings, and courthouse personnel lack the facilities and modern equipment that would help them work efficiently," Rehnquist said at the International Conference on Courthouse Design in the mid-1990s.
Today's modern federal courthouses, from Hammond, Ind., to Boston, are iconic structures projecting power and prestige. Compared with their state and local counterparts, though, the size and scope of federal courthouses is disproportionate to the actual measure of justice being dispensed, Resnik said. And while Congress has been willing to allocate extensive funding for new federal courthouse projects, other areas, like judicial salaries, have remained stagnant.
"Both Taft and Rehnquist got the government to invest significant amounts of money in our federal courts," she said. "But the lack of congressional will to fund anything but buildings should tell you something."
Resnik is the Arthur Liman Professor of Law at Yale Law School. She is the author of Representing Justice: From Renaissance Iconography to Twenty-First Century Courthouses (with Dennis E. Curtis), and was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2002.
Established in 1946 by a trust from the bequest of India Crago Harris in the name of her husband, Addison C. Harris, the Harris Lecture Series brings prominent scholars to the IU Maurer School of Law every year.