Why Are So Many Temples Of Justice Dilapidated?


As the judge was walking through a little park amid buildings across the street from his court, he noticed a crew repainting the iron rails along the path. The day before, lawn mowers had been busy; on other occasions he had noticed gardeners carefully tending flower beds and mulching trees.

This well-cared-for space sits between a pair of low buildings, whose Romanesque appearance and red-brick construction plainly reveals their mid-Victorian origins. Separated now, they were once under a single roof, the newer part added to the original core.

That composite building was, in fact, the former home of the judge's court, abandoned when the high-rise courthouse where he currently sits (his being a state which rotates its general-jurisdiction assignments from county to county) went up in the mid-1970s. The 19th-century complex had plainly outlived its usefulness. As an institution, the court simply needed more space - space whose design would enable it to meet the ever-increasing burden of more cases and new remedies.

Yet, whatever the hopes which attended its conception, the new courthouse had not met them. Architecturally undistinguished at birth, it had immediately begun a process of interior decay that ironically complemented its external banality. Bluntly speaking, the temple of justice was now a pigpen.

Even a determined and focused cleanup effort would not be able to bring its dirty corridors into a minimally tidy state. The stairways were stained, littered with cigarette butts, styrofoam cups, and an occasional dead rodent. The elevators, when able to function, presented scuffed, ramshackle, frequently odorous interiors.

Cleanliness may be next to godliness, but in this courthouse, as in so many state courts across the country, it seemed next to impossible.

Meanwhile, as the judge observed, the old courthouse literally gleamed, its refurbished interiors matching in attractiveness the scrupulously maintained grounds.

True, the buildings now housed offices and clerks' quarters, not courtrooms. That, however, hardly explained the contrast in appearance and care.

The old courthouse had been purchased - after an alerted officialdom thwarted a plan to give it away - by a private business.

Recognizing the structural potential, the developer put appropriate funds to work, not merely to effect the physical changes, but also to ensure the continued necessary maintenance, inside and out.

Why, the judge wondered, should our society be so much more willing to insist upon a tidy, handsome office building than on a decent, attractive courthouse? The absence of a profit motive did not explain it, as became clear when one rephrased the question: Why would the public tolerate for the administration of justice physical conditions that it would not accept in a candy store?

Absence of funding was not the reason, either. Legislative refusal to appropriate is, after all, just a way of expressing the public's indifference or, if you like, the public's priorities.

This is not a question of providing government employees with posh accommodations. Even in the dirt and grime, the judges, clerks, district attorneys, and lawyers seem to function; and, more important, the courts still dispense justice.

That, too, however, begs the question. We should not set our standard at the lowest level that will still permit the courts to operate. Instead, we might try considering the obvious fact that surroundings affect not only how the people working in the ambiance feel about themselves, but how they perceive their work.

Business understands the matter. If the workplace is oppressive and grubby, workers unconsciously absorb the suggestion that the job is unimportant and that no one really cares how it gets done, or even if it gets done. No employer wants employees with that frame of mind. Why should the public (which after all employs every member of the court team) view the problem differently?

The difficulty was still more subtle, the judge realized. Lay people who come into a courthouse, whether as litigants, witnesses, criminal defendants, or jurors, ingest the atmosphere that figuratively (perhaps literally) fills the building. Their attitude toward the courts, toward justice itself, suffers when they enter, not a temple of justice, but rather a sour structure of decay.

If the government thinks so little of what takes place there, we shouldn't expect ordinary citizens to venerate what society treats with such disdain, neglect, and contempt.

By now the judge was inside the "new" courthouse. As he turned toward the elevator, a security officer shouted after him: "That's out of order again."

Well, thought the judge, I'll just use the one at the other end of the building; it won't do much good to complain.

*Hiller B. Zobel sits on the Massachusetts Superior Court.

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