Courtroom still a Detroit jewel

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Tom Kirvan
Legal News, Editor-in-Chief

It’s been tabbed the “Million Dollar Courtroom,” but in today’s currency that would be a small price to pay for the architectural elegance of the surroundings.

There is a richness and history that are hard to quantify when considering the magnificence of the Chief Judge’s Courtroom at the Theodore Levin Courthouse in downtown Detroit. Money, in stark financial terms, doesn’t do justice to the design of the place, which is the centerpiece of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.

During his time as chief judge, Gerald Rosen called it “one of Detroit’s hidden gems,” noting that “its design and its historical significance rank with any courtroom in the country.”

John Roberts, chief justice of the United States, echoed the sentiment during a 2009 visit, calling it “one of the finest” and “most beautiful” courtrooms he has seen, according to Rosen.

“He really marveled at the beauty of the place and the architectural detail throughout,” Rosen said of Chief Justice Roberts. “He was really struck by it.”

Of course, not all who walk through the grand mahogany doors of the court are as smitten by its stature.

“It’s difficult to tell if the defendants fully appreciate the courtroom they are in,” Rosen said with a smile. “I will leave that to them.”

The courtroom, like those who enter its doors, comes with an interesting backstory. It was part of the first federal courthouse built on the Lafayette Street site in 1896. The building, of Romanesque design, reportedly was constructed for the magical sum of $1 million and once was considered the “finest building in Detroit,” according to a brochure prepared by the Historical Society of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan.

But by the early 1930s, several years into the throes of the Great Depression, the building was demolished to make way for a bigger and better courthouse, an Art Deco style structure costing four times the amount of the original judicial facility.

In 1931, then Chief Judge Arthur Tuttle “appealed to William Rush of the Treasury Department to save his district courtroom from demolition,” according to the brochure. Of particular value were the marble walls of the courtroom, approximately 30 different types that came from many states and foreign countries. In 1931 terms, the marble alone was estimated to be worth more than a million bucks, a seven-figure amount that newspapers quickly latched onto when describing the opulence of the court.

“As a result of Chief Judge Tuttle’s perseverance in preserving the courtroom, he earned the moniker, ‘The Judge Who Wouldn’t Budge,’ since, legend has it, he refused to agree to the construction of the new courthouse until the government agreed to pay for the preservation of the courtroom,” explained Rosen, who last year was succeeded as chief judge by Denise Page Hood.

When the courtroom was meticulously reassembled in the fall of 1933 in the new courthouse, it bore almost an identical look to its architectural forerunner, aside from the floor and ceiling that had been “modernized” to pre-World War II standards.

The grandeur of the court perhaps is most visible in the judge’s bench, an elaborately carved work made of East Indian mahogany. Appearing over the bench, according to court historians, is a frieze of “10 female figures depicting the purity of justice,” an accent complemented around the courtroom by a frieze of lion heads.

On either side of the bench are two 12-foot columns made of white marble with pink marble bases. Perched atop each column are four lions holding up a globe, vanguards of the “strength of justice.” The columns, according to the brochure, are “the finishing touch on a courtroom filled with emblems of the 19th century Americans’ sentiment for their legal system, complete with symbols from Greek mythology and biblical times.”

Special medallions appear throughout the federal courtroom, each a clock-like design featuring Mexican onyx with white, salmon and black marble. Eye-catching arches over doors and windows contain a “band of crenellation molding on top with a band of cabling underneath, all in sandy colored marble.

Fittingly, a portrait of the courtroom’s savior, Judge Tuttle, has a prominent place up front, and hangs in perpetuity in the courtroom. Other portraitures are of Chief Judge Arthur Lederle, appointed to the bench in 1936 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt; Chief Judge Theodore Levin, namesake of the federal court building; and Chief Judge Damon J. Keith, now of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

Judge Keith, a champion of civil rights and one of the most distinguished members of the federal judiciary, served on the U.S. District Court bench from 1967-77, eventually rising to the U.S. Court of Appeals. Last summer, the 95-year-old Detroit jurist was honored at the U.S. Supreme Court in recognition of his 50 years on the federal bench.

“It is such a moving experience to be in that courtroom,” said Judge Keith, recalling such cases as the trial of Anthony Giacalone, one of the suspects in the 1975 disappearance of Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa.
“It inspired me as a judge, and I’m sure that the juries, the attorneys, and others who worked there have felt the same. You want to walk the extra mile in the pursuit of truth and justice when you are in that courtroom.”

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