In several countries, governments have embarked on major building expansion programs for their judiciaries. The new buildings posit the courtroom as their center and the judge as that room’s pivot. These contemporary projects follow the didactic path laid out in Medieval and Renaissance town halls, which repeatedly deployed symbolism in efforts to shape norms. Dramatic depictions then reminded judges to be loyal subjects of the state. In contrast, modern buildings narrate not only the independence of judges but also the dominion of judges, insulated from the state. The significant allocation of public funds reflects the prestige accorded to courts by governments that dispatch world-renowned architects to design these icons of the state.

The investment in spectacular structures represents a tribute to the judiciary but should also serve as a reminder of courts’ dependency on other branches of government, which authorize budgets and shape jurisdictional authority. A double narrative comes as well from the design choices. The frequent reliance on glass facades is explained as denoting the accessibility and transparency of the law. But courthouse interiors tell another story, in which segregated passageways (“les trois flux”) have become the norm, devoting substantial space and cost to isolating participants from each other. Further, administrative offices consume the largest percentage of the square footage, illuminating a shift away from public adjudication toward alternative dispute resolution and problematizing the emphasis on courtrooms.

The new monumentality reflects but does not frankly acknowledge the challenges to courts from democratic precepts that grant “everyone” entitlements to public hearings before independent jurists. The buildings are reminders of courts’ contributions to the public sphere, while new rules reconfiguring adjudication privilege private conciliation.

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Book Chapter

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Co-authored with:

Judith Resnik Yale University Law School

Dennis E. Curtis Yale University Law School