Learning center

Courthouse Curriculum: New Learning Center Will Tell the Story of the Southern Indiana District Court

Looking inside one of the historic courtrooms of the Birch Bayh Federal Building and the United States Courthouse in downtown Indianapolis, students and visitors can see the marble, murals and stained glass windows and feel the weight of past proceedings.

But the scene doesn’t tell the whole story.

What does the judge do, how is the jury selected, and what is the architectural style of the courthouse are all questions that provide context for what goes on inside the building and the role of the judiciary in society. .

To help explain the importance of what schoolchildren and adults see, a project is underway to create a space in the Southern Indiana District Court building that will teach the third branch of government.

The Federal Court Learning Center will feature some of Indiana’s Southern District artifacts along with informational and interactive exhibits. Visitors will learn how the federal court system works, how it differs from state courts, and the roles citizens play in the court process.

“These historic courtrooms are simply stunning, and you can’t help but walk in and be awestruck by all the art and craftsmanship,” 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 will really bring what’s going on in the building to life.

The US District Court Historical Society for the Southern District of Indiana Inc. is leading the project, and the Indiana Bar Foundation is an active partner. Currently, design plans for the learning center are complete and the historical society is stepping up its fundraising efforts.

The total cost is between $110,000 and $115,000, but the historical society donated $20,000 to cover the cost of designing Taylor Studios Inc., and to date $21,000 has been donated, which includes contributions from law firms and a “generous grant”. from the foundation of the bar. With the start of 2022, law firms and attorneys in central Indiana will be called upon to raise the remaining approximately $74,000 of the total goal.

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

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

“From the perspective of the bar foundation, we want to encourage different ways to engage people, to educate, to excite the public,” Althardt said. “We see this as one more asset for you to have people, whether they’re coming on a planned tour or just visiting, that we continue to plant these seeds about the importance of civics, because it really crosses all socio-economic boundaries, all age boundaries, which is why we are so excited about this project.

  • Ledgers, postcards and other items will help educate visitors to the new learning center about the justice system and the history of Birch Bayh Federal Building and the United States Courthouse. IT photo/ Katie Stancombe

  • Ledgers, postcards and other items will help educate visitors to the new learning center about the justice system and the history of Birch Bayh Federal Building and the United States Courthouse. IT photo/ Katie Stancombe

  • The rendering of the Court Significance Wall in the Federal Court Learning Center will use interactive exhibits to explain the steps to becoming a federal judge and to highlight some of the cases being tried in the Southern District Court of the United States. ‘Indiana. Artwork by Taylor Studios Inc.

  • Southern Indiana District Court staff Doria Lynch (left) and Mary Giorgio prepared artifacts and memorabilia from the Indianapolis federal courthouse’s history for display. IT photo/Katie Stancobe

Artifacts and exhibits

The new center is housed in the room on the first floor which housed the vending machines. Where attorneys, court staff and security guards went one afternoon for a Coke and a bag of Cheetos will be transformed to tell the story of the Southern Indiana District Court.

Giorgio and Doria Lynch, head of special projects at the Southern Indiana Federal Court, brought out memorabilia and historic keepsakes, including spoons and dishes 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. Additionally, the “beautiful old clerk’s bench” that was in the courtroom of the old Terre Haute Courthouse is being salvaged from the basement of the Indianapolis courthouse so school children can see, touch and gain the experience of being a clerk.

Most of the space will be devoted to exhibits explaining what happens in federal courts and how citizens are called upon to help serve justice. An exhibit will walk visitors through the steps lawyers must take to become a state or federal judge. Another will present the facts of a landmark case, then allow students to make their decision, after which they can flip the card over and learn how the court ruled.

Exhibits will be easy to update with biographies of new judges joining the court and synopses of new cases and issues coming before the court.

“We hope people will have a better understanding of the justice system as a whole and their role in it,” Lynch said, explaining the purpose of the learning center. “So (they have) understood that the courts are not a conceptual, inaccessible and important thing (and) that as citizens they have the responsibility to serve as jurors. They also have the opportunity to raise their concerns in court…and anyone who appears in court has access to justice.

Spiral staircase

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

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

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

“Civic education is key to ensuring people are ready to participate in democracy,” Cierzniak said. “There are a lot of reasons for voter apathy, but one of them could be that people just don’t really understand. Civics will help educate people about how they can play a role in the legislative process, how they can make their voices heard, the importance of serving on a jury, and how the justice system works.

Associated with retired Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath, Cierzniak has spent much of her career lobbying lawmakers at the Indiana Statehouse. She noted the history that unfolded “under the dome” and how standing in the beauty of the Hoosier capitol building and the Bayh courthouse allows the public to feel the connection to the past and learn about it. more about what is happening inside these spaces.

Giorgio uses the majesty of the courthouse to engage teenage visitors.

Showing the spiral staircases that wind from the first to the upper floors, Giorgio will tell students the story of a prisoner who supposedly designed the cascade of swirling steps. Next, she will point out that the stairs can float without any beams holding them back, because the steps all fit together perfectly, so they support each other.

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