In October 2002 the Michigan Supreme Court moved to its permanent quarters at the Michigan Hall of Justice. The journey from the informal meeting places of the early Court to the stately confines of the Hall of Justice is an interesting one with many twists and turns along the way.
The Michigan Hall of Justice
As early as 1922, the need for a judicial building to anchor the west end of the capitol mall in Lansing was recognized. In his 1922 city plan, Harland Bartholomew drew in a stately court building that faced the Capitol.
Forty-five years later, in 1967, Chief Justice John R. Dethmers expressed the hope that “the long continued assurances from some quarters that one day this Court will be housed in a new court building may before long come true.” Unfortunately, it wasn’t for another 32 years that the promise of a home of its own finally came to pass.
The Michigan Hall of Justice, the first Michigan building to be entirely dedicated to the judicial branch of government was dedicated on October 8, 2002. Read the transcript here.
The building, designed by the architectural teams of Spillis Candela DMJM and Albert Kahn Associates, Inc., was constructed by the Lansing-based Christman Company.
The six-story Hall of Justice anchors the west end of the capitol mall and faces the Capitol Building. Anchored by a circular center crowned with a domed skylight, the northern and southern wings of the Hall curve toward the Capitol. Single-story colonnades extend from the ends of each wing as if continuing to reach toward the Capitol. In her speech at the dedication ceremony, Chief Justice Maura D. Corrigan shared these thoughts about the shape of the building:
“As judges our goal is to convey to the people our respect for the rule of law. In this courthouse, [Albert Kahn has] met that goal. [Albert Kahn has] built us a monument to the rule of law…this Hall of Justice that is curved…curved toward the State Capitol building. It stands independently, yet in relation to the Capitol. To me, it seems to be arms outstretched, both shielding and embracing. This building is a bulwark just as our branch of government is a bulwark, protecting through faithful adherence to our Constitution and laws the democratic process that goes on across the way at our Legislature.”
Placed on the black granite that anchors the colonnades and public sitting areas are the words Freedom, Truth, Equality, and Justice. In his dedication speech, Justice Michael F. Cavanagh described what he believed to be the intent and meaning of those words:
“We put those four words up without explanation or even an apparent order because we wanted them to invite reflection. Four words that a teacher can use asking students what they might mean. How they might relate to each other. Which one might be the foundation of which other. We want the students of this state to be active participants in justice and in thinking about justice before they even come in the front door. But I can tell you what those four words mean to me. Freedom is the oxygen that we breathe in this country. It is the core value of our Constitution as reflected in the First Amendment guaranties of freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of assembly. It is the essential element that brought so many of our ancestors to these shores and it is the essential element for which some of our African-American ancestors would gladly bear the risk of coming north to these lakes by the underground railroad. In freedom we can seek truth. From Aristotle to Aquinas to Einstein to your daughter in graduate school, the human adventure is a quest for truth. In the marrow of our bones we hunger for truth. And when we accept truth we recognize equality.
We acknowledge and embrace the self-evident truth that all persons are created equal. Some of us are tall and some of us are short. Some of us have been blessed by the almighty with one set of gifts and some have been blessed with another set. But all are equal. In freedom and in truth and in equality we are then prepared to find justice. With humility and gratitude we accept the charge given us by the people to enter these doors behind us and to do justice. We can do that only with the help and cooperation and prayers and support of all the people of Michigan. Persons of every background and culture must help us to continue to grow in our understanding of justice.”
As described by Spillis Candela DMJM, the Michigan Hall of Justice:
“…was conceived in the grand tradition of City Beautiful planning. The unabashedly monumental and classical overtones of the project are intended to provide a distinctly permanent and durable image for the Michigan judicial system in this age of fleeting impressions and momentary pleasures.
The six-story, limestone-clad building with its gently curved façade and arcades defines a generous civic plaza. The main entrance is marked by a pair of monumental Tuscan order columns providing a focal point for the plaza. Above the front entrance the principal elevation is capped by the shallow glass dome over the Supreme Court lobby. The hemispherical glass dome provides a contemporary contrast to the elongated, mannerist dome of the State Capitol. The interior spaces of the Hall of Justice are organized around a series of circular, colonnaded lobbies on each floor. The Tuscan columns are repeated in the double-height ground floor lobby that leads to the Learning and Conference Centers.”
The Michigan Supreme Court’s courtroom is located on the sixth floor of the Hall of Justice. Oral arguments were first heard in the courtroom in November 2002. As described by Spillis Candela DMJM:
“The Supreme Court lobby is placed hierarchically on the uppermost level beneath the glass dome. From this ceremonial space, one can enter the Supreme Court courtroom itself, which in turn is defined by a shallow, coffered dome ringed by continuous clerestory windows. The interior elevations, furnishings, and the mahogany bench are contemporary interpretations of the 1872 courtroom. The carpet within [the courtroom is] a reinterpretation of the carpet pattern found in one of the original Senate Chambers [in the Capitol]…”
In his speech at the dedication of the Hall, Justice Cavanagh reflected on the circular courtroom:
“An element of native justice, which survives today, is the sentencing circle – the community gathered in the round, young and old having a voice. As we move today into our new round courtroom, we are mindful of the significance of gathering in a circle to those who first served as judges and lawgivers here in the upper Great Lakes [the People of the Three Fires].”
The Learning Center:
On the ground floor of the Michigan Hall of Justice is a 3,800 sq. ft. public education center designed to introduce children and adults to the Michigan court system. This one-of-a-kind, interactive gallery is the result of a concept proposed by then-Chief Justice Elizabeth A. Weaver.
The Learning Center, which is designed for students from the fourth grade to adults, and the gallery are filled with activities including an introductory video, computer programs, push-button programs, and traditional wall text panels.
The Center opened its doors to the public on November 1, 2002, and hosts about 10,000 visitors per year.
The G. Mennen Williams Law Building
[two_thirds]In January 1970, the Michigan Supreme Court was moved into “temporary” quarters in the G. Mennen Williams Law Building in Lansing. The Court occupied the 2nd floor of the building, sharing it with the Attorney General. In the 32 years that the Court sat in the G. Mennen Williams Law Building, 26 different justices served on the Court, 63,000 matters were filed, and 83 volumes of the Court’s opinions were issued.(20)
The Courtroom in the Law Building was functional and plain, featuring maple paneled walls and a maple bench with a backdrop of ¼ inch green marble. There were four maple attorney tables, a walnut podium, and bench seating for 80 spectators in the back of the courtroom.
The Capitol at Lansing
The Supreme Court Courtroom in the Capitol Building in Lansing was the home of the Court from January 1879 until January 1970. During those 90 years, 60 justices sat on the bench(15) and nearly 38,000 cases and almost 10,000 oral arguments were heard.(16)
The Capitol in Lansing, the third in Michigan, was constructed between 1872 and 1878. The Building Commissioner’s aim was to ‘erect a Capitol worthy of the dignity of the State – massive and elegant; void of all trivial ornamentation, and pleasing in workmanship…’ The building completed late in 1878 was constructed of Amherst sandstone, Joliet limestone, 19,000,000 bricks, iron, Michigan pine and walnut, and glass and tin from Great Britain.(17)
The Supreme Court Courtroom, now referred to as the Old Supreme Court Chambers, is located on the third story of the Capitol. The room, measuring 30 by 54 ½ feet, has 20-foot ceilings and is elaborately finished.(18)
At the closing of that courtroom, Chief Justice Thomas E. Brennan remarked:
It is good for us to…remind ourselves that this old courtroom we close today has been the chambers of the Court and not the Court itself, because a Court is not a room or a building: it is people. This courtroom is old at 90 years; the Supreme Court is young at 133.(19)
The Circuits: A Traveling Show
The creation of the state Supreme Court by the Constitution of 1835, two years before Michigan was officially admitted into the Union, ushered in the period of the nomadic Michigan Supreme Court. The 1835 Constitution established a peripatetic Supreme Court of three justices. Sessions of the Court began to move around the state with annual sessions, each beginning on a specific day established by law, held in Wayne, Washtenaw, and Kalamazoo.(9) An Act of March 25, 1840, provided for four annual sessions of the Court to be held in Detroit, Ann Arbor, Kalamazoo, and Pontiac.(10) An April 1851 Act provided for five annual sessions of the Court to be held in Detroit, Kalamazoo, Adrian, Pontiac, and Lansing.(11) A law of February 16, 1857, reduced the number of annual sessions to four, with two sessions to be held in Lansing and two to be held in Detroit.(12)
During the years of the traveling Court, sessions of the Court were held not only in various cities, but also in various locations within each city. The annual Detroit sessions of the Michigan Supreme Court were held in no less than 5 locations:
The State Supreme Court held its sessions in the old Williams Block, on the southeast corner of Jefferson Avenue and Bates Street, until the spring of 1844, when it began to hold its sessions in the old seminary building…Sessions continued to be held there until 1855, when…the court removed to the old Wayne County Building, on the southeast corner of Congress and Griswold Streets, remaining there until May 3, 1858, when it moved to the Odd Fellows’ Hall, on Woodward Avenue. From there the court was moved to the Seitz Building, on the south side of Congress near Griswold Street…It remained there until removed to Lansing.(13)
Finally, by an Act written on April 22, 1873, the traveling days of the Court were brought to an end and all sessions of the Supreme Court were thereafter held in Lansing.(14)
The Territorial Supreme Court: Houses, Taverns, and Official Buildings
On July 24, 1805, the first Supreme Court of the new Michigan Territory was created. As the seat of Territorial government, Detroit was the site of the earliest sessions of the Territorial Court. Reflecting the pioneering spirit and adventurous nature of its constituents, the Court’s early meetings were often informal and sometimes even a little raucous.
There were no official court chambers so sessions of the Court were held in private houses and homeowners were paid a small fee.(1) The first meeting of the Court took place at the home of prominent Detroit resident James May, with subsequent sessions being held at the homes of other Detroit residents such as John Dodemead, Gabriel Godfrey, Jr., John Harvey, Louis Moran, and John Kinzie.(2) At other times, sessions of the Court were held in the private chambers of the presiding judge.(3)
Without an official meeting place, the Court apparently did not feel tied to any particular rules of decorum regarding the times and locations of its sessions. Sessions of the Court were sometimes held in the afternoon and at night at local taverns. “An article in The Gazette of October 25, 1825,
says that the court sat ‘sometimes at midday and sometimes at midnight; sometimes in the council house and sometimes in the clerk’s office; sometimes at a tavern and sometimes on a woodpile.”(4) An earlier observation printed in The Detroit Gazette in 1823 stated:
In September 1820, the court frequently held its sessions from 2 P.M. till 12, 1, and 3 o’clock in the morning of the next day; and cases were disposed of in the absence of both clients and counsel. During these night sittings, suppers of meat and bottles of whiskey were brought into court, and a noisy and merry banquet was partaken at the bar by some, while others were addressing the court in solemn argument, and others presenting to the judges on the bench, meat, bread, and whiskey, and inviting them to partake.(5)
Of particular concern to the citizens of the Territory was the fact that Court was often convened at the sole convenience of the judges without proper notice to the public.(6) A “memorial of 1823 states that during a session of four months the court held its sittings at night, instead of in the daytime, and at private offices, without giving knowledge of its whereabouts to the people.”(7)
By 1828, the Territorial Court had begun to meet in more appropriate locations such as the newly built Capitol at Detroit and the Council House.(8)
1 Gilpin, Alec R., The Territory of Michigan 1805 – 1837. Michigan State University Press. East Lansing, MI 1970.
2 Supreme Courts of the Territory and State, Michigan Supreme Court Historical Society Collection. pg 179
6 Dunbar, Michigan Through the Centuries, Vol. 2., pg. 543.
7 Supreme Courts of the Territory and State, Michigan Supreme Court Historical Society Collection. pg 179
8 Ibid. pg 185
9 Campbell, James V., Judicial History of Michigan. 1895. pg. 32
10 Supreme Courts of the Territory and State, Michigan Supreme Court Historical Society Collection. pg 187
15 Dedication of An Historical Marker Commemorating the Old Supreme Court Courtroom 1879-1970. 430 Michigan Reports.
16 Dedication of An Historical Marker Commemorating the Old Supreme Court Courtroom 1879-1970. 430 Michigan Reports.
17 A Portfolio of Michigan Capitol Woodcuts, Reprinted from the February 15, 1879 ISSUE OF Harpers’ Weekly by the Michigan Capitol Committee and the Friends of the Capitol, Inc.
19 Capitol Courtroom Closing. 383 Michigan Reports.
20 Michigan Supreme Court Special Session Court Closing Ceremony. 466 Michigan Reports.