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Old courthouse becomes new beating heart of Treasure Valley’s legal community

University of Idaho law student talks about new Boise center

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When third-year law student Austin Frates walked through the heavy metal-and-glass doors for the first time, the building was still under renovation.

The old Ada County Courthouse was being transformed into the Idaho Law and Justice Learning Center.

Frates recalls that the center “started to take form, and I realized the architecture and the history coming together with all of the technology,” he says. “I thought, ‘This is gonna be great.’ I’m excited to study here. It’s comfortable, it’s professional, but it also represents Idaho’s history.”

The Idaho Law and Justice Learning Center was built in the late 1930s as a New Deal project.

The University of Idaho College of Law is a tenant of the limestone-facade building, which belongs to the state. The building was vacated by Ada County in 2002, then used by the Idaho Legislature and other state government offices when they needed temporary space.

The building avoided demolition more than once, until the state, the university and the Idaho Supreme Court made a deal to share it and give it a new life, using more than $6 million of mostly state funds to rehab the structure.

The school spent more than $1 million on renovations to make it suitable. The stairways and hallways are original, with a bit of cleaning and polish to bring them back to luster. The building now holds a law library, Supreme Court office space, study areas, and rooms for classes and legal clinics.

“It’s been a five-year project to get the building back up to a useable state,” says Lee Dillion, the law school’s associate dean for Boise programs. “I’d say every system — heating, cooling, plumbing, electrical — it’s all been replaced.”

The building now runs on the same geothermal system that heats the Capitol Mall, he says.

“We were just a little concerned: Are the students going to like the classrooms? Are the faculty offices going to work?” he says.

Those worries turned out to be unfounded. “The students have taken real ownership of the lounges and study areas.”

On a recent Tuesday morning, before a full day of classes got underway, five or six young men were holed up in individual study cubicles along a wall of the law library. Some wore ear buds, their eyes glued to books or screens. Others tapped on keyboards. Otherwise, the library was silent.

Third-year law student Molly Mitchell, of Coeur d’Alene, is among those who have become very familiar with the building. She spends four or five hours a day there.

“I feel like they did a really good job of keeping all the cool historic things about the building,” she says. “It just looks really nice.”

Frates, of Boise, returned to the city last year. He had begun law school on the University of Idaho’s campus in Moscow.

Over the past five years, the university operated a satellite campus for its second- and third-year law students. Until this year, that campus was in the Water Center at Front Street and Broadway Avenue.

The Water Center “housed a number of graduate programs,” Frates says. The law school “just had the first floor and the fifth floor, to kind of be our space, with a law library. And now we have this gigantic, huge building.”

If the university has its way, all three years of its law program will be offered in Downtown Boise as soon as 2017 — positioning the school with a full law program mere blocks from its only Idaho competitor, the Concordia University School of Law.

The location is a feature Dillion says the 105 students in the building appreciate.

State judges are walking through all the time, and our two federal bankrupcty judges teach a class for us. [Students] are being treated as colleagues of practicing judges and attorneys.

Lee Dillion, U of I College of Law associate dean for Boise programs

Frates thinks the urban setting affords more networking opportunities than are available in Moscow.

He gestures west, east and south around the school to the legal landmarks within spitting distance.

“We’ve got the Capitol. We’ve got the Supreme Court. And then we’ve got the State Bar right there,” he says. “So, as far as being a law student, you have access to everything ‘law.’ ”

Audrey Dutton: 208-377-6448, @IDS_Audrey. This article appears in the Nov. 18-Dec. 15, 2015, edition of the Idaho Statesman’s Business Insider magazine.

Should murals of lynching be kept out of sight?

The Idaho Law and Justice Learning Center’s relics include controversial, 75-year-old murals — two show the lynching of an American Indian. The state Department of Administration, which controls the building, held a public meeting Nov. 4 as it decides what to do about the murals in the long term.

The murals were painted in Southern California and mounted in 1940 in the building, then the Ada County Courthouse, as part of a Depression-era program to put artists to work. They are now covered.

Historic preservationists and some members of Idaho’s tribe oppose covering them, saying the public can learn from society’s mistakes. “The reasons behind these murals need to be discussed,” says Blaine Edmo, a member of the Shoshone Bannock Tribe.

But the University of Idaho says the murals create a negative learning space. “The display of the murals says, particularly to our Native American and African American students, that people like you are not welcome here,” says Mark Adams, dean of the U of I law school.

Ty Simpson, a member of the Nez Perce Tribe, supports keeping the murals covered. “I don’t see a vibrant history in the mural,” Simpson says. “I see pain. I see genocide that has long-reaching impacts on our people today.”

Much the same arguments about the murals were repeated nearly nine years ago when lawmakers began preparing to occupy the no-longer-used courthouse while the Capitol underwent renovations. Lawmakers, historians and tribal members came to a solution by spending months working on appropriate explanatory language to post on plaques under the murals to offer historical context to the images.

The Associated Press