Courthouse curriculum: New learning center will tell the story of Southern Indiana District Court

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Peering inside one of the historic courtrooms of the Birch Bayh Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in downtown Indianapolis, students and visitors can see the marble, the murals and the stained-glass windows, and sense the weight of past proceedings.

But the scene does not tell the complete story.

What does the judge do, how is the jury selected and what is the architectural style of the courthouse are the kinds of questions providing the context to what happens inside the building and the judiciary’s role in society.

To help explain the significance of what school children and adults see, a project is underway to create a space within the Southern Indiana District Court building that will teach about the third branch of government.

The Federal Court Learning Center will showcase some of the artifacts from the Southern Indiana District as well as feature informational displays and interactive exhibits. Visitors will learn how the federal judiciary works, how it is different from the state courts and the roles citizens play in the judicial process.

“Those historic courtrooms are just absolutely beautiful, and you can’t help walking into them and being awed by all of the art and artistry,” said Mary Giorgio, public outreach coordinator and training specialist for the Southern Indiana District Court. “But part of the purpose of the learning center is to add context. … It’ll really bring to life what happens in the building.”

The Historical Society for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana Inc. is leading the project, and the Indiana Bar Foundation is an active partner. Currently, the design plans for the learning center have been completed and the historical society is amping up its fundraising efforts.

The total cost is between $110,000 and $115,000, but the historical society chipped in $20,000 to cover the cost of the design by Taylor Studios Inc., and to date, $21,000 has been donated, which includes contributions from law firms and a “generous grant” from the bar foundation. With the start of 2022, law firms and lawyers in central Indiana will be solicited to raise the roughly $74,000 that remains of the total goal.

Plans call for the new space to be open and educating courthouse visitors in early October.

John Althardt, marketing and communications manager at the bar foundation, said the learning center will help satisfy “a real thirst and a real hunger” many people have for experiential learning. They will have the opportunity to better understand the judicial system by walking through the courthouse, seeing the courtrooms and the craftsmanship, and then spending time looking at the exhibits.

“From the bar foundation’s perspective, we want to encourage different ways of engaging people, of educating, of exciting the public,” Althardt said. “We see this as one more asset so that you have people, whether they’re coming for a planned tour or they’re just visiting, that we continue to plant those seeds about the significance of civic education because it really does cross all socioeconomic boundaries, all age boundaries. So that’s why we’re excited about this project.”

Artifacts and exhibits

The new center is being lodged in the first-floor room that has been home to the vending machines. Where attorneys, court personnel and security guards went for an afternoon pick-me-up of a Coke and bag of Cheetos is going to be transformed to tell the story of the Southern Indiana District Court.

Giorgio and Doria Lynch, special projects manager at the Southern Indiana federal court, have been pulling historic souvenirs and mementos including spoons and dinnerware commemorating the courthouse, which opened in 1905, and artifacts like boxes and wheels used to select members of a jury. The items will be displayed in the learning center. Also, the “beautiful old clerk’s bench” that sat in the courtroom of the former courthouse in Terre Haute is being retrieved from the basement of the Indianapolis courthouse so school children can see, touch and get the experience of being a court clerk.

Most of the space will be devoted to exhibits explaining what happens in the federal courts and how citizens are called upon to help serve justice. One display will have the visitors walk the steps that lawyers must trod to become either a state or federal judge. Another will present the facts of a historic case then allow the students to make their decision, after which they can flip up the card and learn how the court ruled.

The exhibits will be easy to update with biographies of new judges who join the court and synopses of new cases and new issues coming before the court.

“We hope that people have a better understanding of the judiciary as a whole and their role in it,” Lynch said, explaining the goal of the learning center. “So (they have an) understanding that the courts are not some big, inaccessible, conceptual thing (and) that as citizens, they have a responsibility to serve as jurors. They also have the opportunity to bring their concerns before the court … and everybody who comes before the court has access to justice.”

Spiral stairway

The Southern Indiana District Court already had hands-on educational programs for the estimated 5,000 students who visited the courthouse each year prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Mock jury selections and sentencing simulations were offered in addition to a tour of the building. The learning center, Lynch said, will dovetail with the activities to give the school children more knowledge of the court.

Elizabeth “Libby” Cierzniak, president of the court’s historical society, said she sees the Southern Indiana District’s educational offerings and new learning center as echoing the call from the U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. In his 2019 review, Roberts encouraged district courts to take an active role in teaching the public about the federal judiciary and its role in democracy.

Cierzniak said she believes lawyers will support the Learning Center because they will understand the importance of what is being taught. The launch of the learning center coincides with passage of the civic education bill, House Enrolled Act 1384, during the 2021 session of the Indiana General Assembly and the introduction of new civic education curriculum for middle school students in the 2023-2024 school year.

“Civic education is vital to ensure that people are prepared to participate in democracy,” Cierzniak said. “There’s a lot of reasons for voter apathy, but one might be people just don’t really understand. Civic education will help educate people about how they can play a role in the legislative process, how they can get their voices heard, the importance of serving on a jury and how the legal system works.”

A retired partner from Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath, Cierzniak spent much of her career in the Indiana Statehouse lobbying lawmakers. She noted the history that has occurred “beneath the dome” and how standing in the beauty of both the Hoosier capitol building and the Bayh Courthouse enables the public to feel the connection to the past and to learn more about what happens inside those spaces.

Giorgio uses the majesty of the courthouse to keep teenage visitors interested.

Showing the spiral stairs that wind from the first to the upper floors, Giorgio will tell students the story of a prisoner who is believed to have designed the swirling cascade of steps. Then she will point out that the stairs are able to float without any beams holding them up because the steps all interlock perfectly, so they support themselves.

“And then I say, ‘OK, and now let’s head on up to the second floor,’ and we get on those stairs,” Giorgio said. “And some of those kids are a little bit hesitant. We have to say, ‘It’s OK, they’ve been here for over 100 years and nothing has ever happened to them.’”•

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