Pandemic May Change The Way We Design Our Courthouses

By Elisabeth Ross
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Law360 (July 21, 2020, 5:00 PM EDT) --
Elisabeth Ross
Elisabeth Ross
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to surge across the United States, court operations continue to adapt, and litigants, court administrators and the public are forced to rethink what it means to access the public spaces of the judicial system.

The pandemic has, of course, challenged traditional notions of when to require physical presence in the courtroom for judicial proceedings. What happens to courthouses when these civic spaces are emptied of their usual occupants due to a health crisis?

Courthouses are buildings designed to perform the civic and cultural work of connecting the public to the judiciary. Visible landmarks that once anchored towns and cities, courthouses are buildings that are seen by the public and, at the same time, shape how the law is seen. They are part of the iconography of civil society.

Litigators may not necessarily have courtroom design in mind when running in and out of court for status calls, addressing judges from a podium during oral argument, conferring with colleagues in courthouse lobbies, or counseling clients in meeting areas. However, with access to the physical space of courthouses curtailed by the pandemic, it is worthwhile to reflect on the design considerations that go into making these buildings work for our profession and the clients we serve.

Design professionals tasked with overseeing courthouse design and implementation must also respond to the heightened tension between the goals of public health and access to justice. Through collaborative efforts with public officials, court administrators and the community, architects play an important role in reimagining how courthouses might advance the ideals of democracy and participation in the face of a pandemic.

The buildings that serve the public will adapt as they have in response to previous crises. The current crisis may present opportunities for improved access to these civic spaces.

Courthouse Iconography: The Courtroom as the "Home of the Law"

Justice Stephen Breyer, famously interested in architecture and design particularly as these relate to government buildings, once commented, "You see history in architecture."[1] The history of courthouse design reflects the complex relationship between citizens and civic institutions. The public space of the courthouse has a particular role in the imaginary of American citizenship.

Think, for example, of the iconicity of courthouse steps.[2] After the U.S. Supreme Court closed its front entrance in 2010 over security concerns, instead of ascending the white marble steps to enter the court, visitors are ushered into the court via ordinary doors at ground level. Justice Breyer expressed dismay over that decision.

"To many members of the public," he wrote, "this court's main entrance and front steps are not only a means to, but also a metaphor for, access to the court itself."[3] Commenting that "the courtroom is the home of the law," Justice Breyer has called for courtroom designs that help "to restore a sense of community, and that encourage public participation."[4]

These design ideals are challenged on many fronts, particularly as courthouses have moved away from town centers and as litigation itself is increasingly resolved outside courts in private alternative dispute resolution settings.[5]

In Chicago, the iconography of the courthouse was reconceived by the modernist architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Mies was the designer of the Chicago Federal Center and Plaza, and his student, Jacques Brownson, was chief architect of the Richard J. Daley Center. The Federal Center houses the Everett M. Dirksen U.S. Courthouse, while the Cook County Circuit Court is located in the Daley Center. Neither Dirksen nor the Daley Center has courthouse steps. Instead, these modernist skyscrapers, clad in glass and steel, tower over large, open plazas that have become important cultural and political spaces.

During a recent conversation, Dirk Lohan, the renowned Chicago architect and grandson of Mies, told me that "from an architectural history point of view, public spaces, plazas and squares have always been part of the vocabulary of planning and design." However, Lohan said, Mies and some of the other modernists adapted this concept and created setbacks that allow space from which to experience a building and that allow light and sunshine to reach the ground at certain hours of the day.

Free of traditional elements such as stone facades, domes, or ornate columns, one goal of the architecture of the Dirksen courthouse, according to Lohan, is its "expression to the community."

Courthouse Design Practices: Building Access to Justice

Courthouses are unique civic spaces precisely because, despite their public nature, they are the buildings where private citizens call upon the judiciary to resolve their disputes and carry out their business.

Early on in the design process, whether updating an older building or designing a new facility, architects working on a courthouse project engage key stakeholders to take inventory of what specific spaces are required to achieve a building design that best serves the community. The court's chief judge, court administrators, circuit clerks, corrections departments, state attorneys, and any entity with operational impact in the building will be brought into these conversations.

In addition to local building codes, fire and life safety codes, and other regulations, courthouse designers are held to certain minimum standards required by federal and state branches of government. Federal court projects are overseen by the U.S. General Services Administration, or GSA.

Established in 1949 as an independent agency to manage the administrative work of the federal government, the GSA also oversees the preservation of historic buildings and, through its Design Excellence Program, provides standards for architects and engineers tasked with designing public construction projects.[6]

The GSA's Facilities Standards for the Public Buildings Service (P-100) sets forth performance and technical criteria for design professionals working on federal courthouse projects, and its Design Standards for U.S. Court Facilities cover wide-ranging criteria including workplace performance, mechanical and electrical systems, interior design, and accessibility.[7]

State supreme courts typically develop their own court design standards. For example, in Illinois, the Administrative Office of the Illinois Courts publishes the Illinois Supreme Court's Minimum Courtroom Standards, which identify parameters for courtroom design, construction and renovation.[8] State standards also reflect input drawn from other sources, including the National Center for State Courts, which provides research, consulting and education related to architecture, security, operations and technology modernization projects in state courts.[9]

In terms of how many courtrooms a courthouse building will hold, the analysis will factor in a jurisdiction's caseload and, in some cases, standards that allot a certain number of judges according to population. State jurisdictional standards may also reflect local preferences related to courtroom layout, for example, whether to design a courtroom with a corner bench or the more traditional center bench arrangement.

Finally, court design teams work with consultants to analyze population projections and other factors that may impact future build-out potential. Predicting changes in caseload due to population metrics or as result of legislative trends allows the design team to develop buildings with space that may be repurposed or adapted according to the future needs of a community.

Keeping It Real: Anticipating Change and Responding to Crisis

Until the current pandemic, the main drivers of change in courtroom design were related to modernized technology and security concerns, issues that directly impact the public's access to courts both in terms of physical access to courthouses and access to judicial resources. Long before the pandemic, court design teams increasingly worked with consultants and court administrators to develop best practices for integrating technology in courtrooms. Telephonic and video-enabled court appearances were becoming more common, albeit not uniformly implemented or available across jurisdictions.

At the same time, several high-profile incidents of violence directed toward government buildings and the people inside them resulted in increased security measures in state and federal government buildings that, for the most part, we have come to expect when we enter such spaces.

According to Security Planning and Design, a primer for designers introduced in 2004 by the American Institute of Architects, the federal government spent over $1.2 billion on protective measures against a vehicle-delivered bomb since the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.[10] Bollards installed outside government buildings to prevent vehicular attacks have since become ubiquitous.

Standard practice for courthouse design now calls for robust security programs integrated inside new buildings. Older buildings are retrofitted with security checkpoint areas that typically feature security screening through the use of magnetometers, X-ray equipment, and other electronic or visual inspections. Surveillance cameras, bullet-resistant materials, panic buttons and other hardened security are increasingly common design considerations, depending on the type of court and the jurisdiction.[11]

Disease-Driven Design: Public Health and Public Architecture

While certain general public health concerns are addressed in the GSA standards and some state standards, COVID-19 has increased the urgency of these concerns and has required heightened, immediate response efforts.

Many courthouses have limited in-person operations in favor of tele- and videoconferencing, particularly for civil proceedings. Some courthouses have set up temporary screening stations to perform health checks for those needing to enter the building. Architects and engineers working on courthouse projects have redirected attention to the crisis as well, conferring with judges and court administrators to develop design solutions to ensure public safety and resume court operations.

There is historical precedent to this kind of disease-driven design. "Modernity was driven by illness," wrote architectural historian Beatriz Colomina, who has written about the role of the tuberculosis pandemic in the late 19th century in the development of modernist architecture.[12] In fact, as Colomina has pointed out, modern building practices that rely on materials such as concrete, steel and glass and even concepts such as access to natural light and outdoor space have historical origins tied to health concerns related to tuberculosis.[13]

The Future of Courthouse Design

The current pandemic will undoubtedly leave its own imprint on the design of public spaces, including courthouses. With judges, courtroom staff and attorneys still working from home in many communities, videoconferencing is becoming the new normal and public access to courts means watching proceedings via YouTube livestream.

Current guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention focus on social distancing and wearing masks to prevent spread of the virus. Implementing courthouse design solutions that take into account these guidelines poses unique challenges.

Jason Dwyer, president of design and construction at Wight & Company, the firm behind the new Will County courthouse in Joliet, Illinois, told me that "one side benefit to the robust technology integration that predated the pandemic in some jurisdictions is that we can use that infrastructure to solve some of the health crisis issues."

Dwyer anticipates that much of the judiciary's response to the pandemic will be driven by operational change. "In the future, we may not be building as many courtrooms in the traditional manner," he added. "Instead, we may consider projects that involve smaller courtrooms that are very high-tech, but where you bring in a lot of the participants to the court proceedings virtually."

Other design responses to the pandemic include implementing cutting-edge HVAC systems technologies with enhanced filtration, including UV filtration and bipolar ionization to improve interior air quality.

Social distancing poses a particular challenge in the context of jury trials, which may be more complicated to conduct via remote means. In addition, courtroom seating is often comprised of pews or benches that cannot be cordoned off effectively.

Some commonsense solutions may work better than others. Dwyer has reservations, for example, about the permanent use of Plexiglas dividers in courtrooms. Creating such barriers can interfere with audio and other technologies. There may also be negative connotations to presenting a witness shielded by glass.

Dwyer is currently working with court personnel at the DuPage County courthouse in Wheaton, Illinois, to repurpose a large office area in the main courthouse as a socially distanced courtroom. The new, oversized courtroom will accommodate a limited number of participants, with a new configuration that allows 14 jurors to be spaced 6 feet apart.

Whether or not repurposing existing space in this manner is a long-term solution remains to be seen. Even when the current pandemic is no longer a threat, however, having the option of a socially distanced courtroom may be beneficial even during a regular flu season.

According to Peter Coolsen, court administrator for the George N. Leighton Criminal Courthouse in Chicago for 17 years and currently a consultant for the National Center for State Courts, building designs that include flexible space will be a key feature of courthouses in the future.

Coolsen told me he agrees that certain courtroom activities can be moved outside the courthouse and still operate effectively. Certain types of proceedings, Coolsen suggests, may even be more effective when conducted virtually, for example, contested divorce cases, where face-to-face proceedings may be undesirable to the parties.

Although the pandemic has destabilized access to public spaces, including the civic space of the courthouses, the crisis presents new opportunities and ways of thinking that may result in enhanced means of accessing the judicial process. "The challenge for the architect," suggests Lohan, "is to respond to these new demands in such a way that the architecture is still compelling and has a certain openness or democratic feeling, one that does not fence the public off from the process."



Elisabeth Ross is an associate at Cozen O'Connor PC.

The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients, or Portfolio Media Inc., or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for general information purposes and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice.


[1] Pogrebin, R. (2011, Oct 6). Breyer Invited to Make a Case for Architecture. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/06/arts/design/stephen-breyer-pritzker-prize-jury-architecture.html. Since 2011, Justice Breyer has served as a juror on the panel that awards the Pritzker Prize, one of the world's most prestigious prizes for architecture.

[2] Iconic imagery, including that reflected in buildings and other public structures, is a form of what Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites refer to as visual eloquence. Iconic images can shape the way citizens see themselves in society, serve as a means of persuasion across the political spectrum, and offer an important resource for critical reflection. For further discussion, see Hariman, R. and Lucaites, J. (2007). No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[3] Breyer, J. Statement Concerning the Supreme Court's Front Entrance. (2010, May 3). Retrieved from https://www.scotusblog.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/Justice_Breyer_Statement-1.pdf.

[4] Breyer, J. (2006). Foreword. In S. Flanders (Ed.),Celebrating the Courthouse: A Guide for Architects, their Clients, and the Public(pp.11-12). New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.

[5] For further discussion of the changing role of the courthouse in communities, see, Levy, K. and Kent, F. (2009, Jan 2). Reinventing the Courthouse. The Project for Public Spaces. Retrieved from https://www.pps.org/article/courts-in-a-new-paradigm-of-place.

[6] https://www.gsa.gov/about-us/background-history/a-brief-history-of-gsa.

[7] U.S. General Services Administration, P100 Facilities Standards for the Public Buildings Service (2018). Available at https://www.gsa.gov/real-estate/design-construction/engineering-and-architecture/facilities-standards-p100-overview.

[8] Supreme Court of Illinois, Minimum Courtroom Standards (updated 2018). Retrieved from https://courts.illinois.gov/SupremeCourt/Policies/Pdf/Courtroom_Standards.pdf.

[9] https://www.ncsc.org/services-and-experts/areas-of-expertise/facilities-planning

[10] Kamin, B. (2006, Sep 9). Federal Buildings Don Armor of Nation Under Siege. Chicago Tribune. Retrieved from https://www.chicagotribune.com/chi-090806govbuilding-story.html.

[11] Hardening Security for Courthouse Buildings. (2018) Total Security Solutions. Retrieved from https://www.tssbulletproof.com/blog/hardening-security-courthouse-buildings/

[12] Colomina, B. (2019). X-Ray Architecture(p. 11). Zurich, Switzerland: Lars Müller Publishers.

[13] Colomina, 2019, pp. 22, 89.

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