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May 2006

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


Federal Courthouse 'Learning Center' to Open in St. Louis

How does the work of the federal courts differ from that of state courts? What are the different types of federal courts? What does “an independent Judiciary” and “the rule of law” mean?

Visitors to the impressive Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse in St. Louis have a hands-on opportunity to discover the answers to these questions, and more, as a Judicial Learning Center opens its doors in May.

“This is not a museum,” explained Jim Woodward, clerk of court for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, as he walked through the center’s ground-floor home. “When this building was being planned, it was decided that a space should be devoted to presenting clear, objective information about the federal courts—about the courts’ roles, their structure, their work.”

Senior Judge Edward L. Filippine (E.D. Mo.) was an early champion of the center. “His vision was to have an inviting space to accommodate student groups or members of community organizations who visit the courthouse for scheduled tours, and to attract visitors who may simply be curious about the building,” Woodward said.

A staple of the downtown St. Louis skyline (it is the city’s third tallest building), the 28-story courthouse has about 650,000 square feet of usable space, making it the nation’s largest federal court facility and the only one that houses three distinct federal courts. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, the Eastern District of Missouri, and the Eastern District’s U.S. Bankruptcy Court call the courthouse home.

Although the courthouse opened in January 2001, build-out of the 2,500-square- foot learning center did not begin until January 2006.

“It is a space dedicated to letting the public know just how much importance our Constitution’s Framers attached to the federal courts and to an independent Judiciary,” said Judge Catherine Perry (E.D. Mo), who served on a committee of judges and lawyers who helped bring the project to completion.

“We want to inform visitors about the judicial process, to promote public understanding of the importance of the rule of law in American society, and to tell them why the Founders designed a separate but coequal branch of government,” she said.

The Judicial Learning Center, a program supported by the courts of the Eighth Circuit, is a non-profit corporation whose board members come from the St. Louis legal community. Content for the center has been developed by educators, lawyers, museum experts, and judges.

“A lot of brainstorming went into choosing basic topics,” Woodward said.

Once the topics were identified, St. Louis resident Jason Schmidt, a third-year law student at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, was given a 10-week contract to develop text material for the center’s permanent exhibits.

Until those exhibits are installed, the center will feature various traveling displays with justice and law themes. The first is one showing the role of the U.S. district courts in immigration, naturalization and deportation proceedings.

Nearly 2,000 immigrants are sworn in as new U.S. citizens in some 25 naturalization ceremonies held each year in the Eastern District of Missouri. The center’s first exhibit, expected to be on display until July, was provided by the American Immigration Law Foundation, and is entitled “America’s Heritage: A History of U.S. Immigration.”

“Once we’ve completed all the permanent features, this will be a very interactive experience,” Woodward said as he pointed out where a flat-panel television with various video capabilities will be located. “The center will include a replica of a judicial bench and a jury box. We know that students love to sit in a judge’s or juror’s chair. They understand the importance of what goes on in a court. We also hope to have a federal-courts-in-the-news feature that will be updated daily.”

The center is considered an ideal place in which to begin organized tours for students and other groups of visitors. Each of the courthouse’s tenants will play a role in hosting visitors. “It’s a great place to set the right tone,” Woodward said.

Construction costs for the build-out of the center were shared by the General Service Administration and the federal courts of the Eighth Circuit, but the costs of updating content will be paid for by a separate and independent non-profit corporation.