“FOOD FIGHT!!” shouts Bluto Blutarsky, seconds before cafeteria mayhem ensues in the iconic 1970s comedy “Animal House.” More images of chaos from other corners of pop culture quickly follow on-screen, humorously illustrating what our lives might look like without the Rule of Law. For a moment, I forgot I was in a courthouse rather than a movie theater.
I recently had the opportunity to tour the Ralph L. Carr Judicial Center in Denver with a group of judges, court executives, and architects. Located within this large, multi-tenant judicial center is the Colorado Judicial Learning Center, which is not only a centerpiece of the building but a valuable educational resource for the community.
The Learning Center includes a brilliant video that explores the stark differences between the Rule of Man and the Rule of Law from the perspective of an inquisitive teenager. This video was so impressive in the way it interspersed a wide range of movie clips, graphics, and animation to convey important Constitutional concepts in an understandable and engaging way. It is certainly one of the Center’s more prominent exhibits. I also wandered through other exhibits and was able to explore the many opportunities for visitors to learn about the judicial process, including:
- Our Constitution – a trivia game testing participants’ knowledge of the U.S. Constitution
- Path of Resolution – an interactive display demonstrating how different types of cases travel through the various levels of the court system, and the specific function of each court along the way
- Our Colorado Map – a touch-screen map showing visitors how the state is divided into counties, districts, water divisions, and tribal lands
- You Be the Judge – an interactive exhibit in which the visitor assumes the role of an appellate judge, learning the intricacies of judicial responsibility and discretion, reviewing facts and details, and eventually weighing the information to reach a decision
After trying many of the exhibits (the trivia questions are not easy!), I could picture groups of schoolchildren visiting the Colorado Judicial Learning Center and walking away both entertained and educated. It reminded me of a similar space I toured a few years ago in the Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse in St. Louis, MO, which is specifically designed to educate young students about the role of the judiciary . Similar learning centers can also be found in the Thurgood Marshall U.S. Courthouse in New York City, the Supreme Court of Virginia in Richmond, VA, and the Supreme Court of Wyoming in Cheyenne, WY. The Judicial Learning Center of Wyoming was directly inspired by the Colorado Judicial Learning Center after Wyoming’s Chief Justice attended the 2013 dedication of the Carr Judicial Center in Denver and “was struck by the number of children and adults of all ages fully engaged in the Rule of Law as it has developed in Colorado.”
As a courthouse planner, I took away many concepts from the Colorado Judicial Learning Center that could be incorporated into our future planning efforts. Here are a few observations you and your planning teams might also find helpful:
- Judicial Learning Centers are best located in a Supreme or appellate courthouse – The Carr Judicial Center houses both the Colorado Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals. The courthouses mentioned above and others that feature learning centers also typically house Supreme or appellate courts. These types of courthouses do not normally host proceedings with in-custody criminal defendants and therefore do not have a cellblock, holding cells, or prisoner circulation. Although all courthouse visitors are carefully screened, the overall feel of the building once past security is one of civic importance and quiet solemnity. This pairs well with a space intended to emphasize the role of the judiciary and the importance of the Rule of Law. A learning center might not work as well in a high-volume court of general jurisdiction or a municipal court with busy traffic and misdemeanor dockets.
- A 1st floor location is ideal – The Colorado Judicial Center is located adjacent to the 1st floor lobby. The easier it is for visitors to access the space – especially in large groups – the better. Once visitors pass through security, they should be able to make their way directly to the learning center. Proper signage and wayfinding helps this process. In addition, the building lobby should be sized to allow groups to assemble after passing through security, to perhaps divide into smaller groups, complete head counts, use restrooms, etc. Some noise and disruptions are likely with school groups, so the location of the learning center in relation to courtrooms should be considered from that perspective.
- Exhibits should cover a range of age groups and learning styles – While all visitors might not be as amused as I was by Mr. Blutarsky, the Colorado Judicial Learning Center seems to have something for everyone. From interactive games geared towards elementary schoolers to more in-depth exhibits better suited for Constitutional law students, the variety of exhibits makes the center an inviting and informative experience for any visitor. Developing exhibits that cover a wide range of interests ensures that the learning center effectively serves the community.
With technology rapidly advancing, it’s exciting to imagine what judicial learning centers might have in store for future visitors. Maybe we’ll see a virtual reality courtroom where aspiring lawyers could argue in front of Supreme Court Justices. Or perhaps the timeless importance of the Rule of Law will be illustrated through an entirely new series of cultural memes. Just watch out for flying tomatoes!