Courtesy of Colorado State Judicial Branch
DENVER – The question is a mainstay on fifth-grade civics tests: Name the three branches of government.
Legislative, executive, and … uh …
A lot of people forget about the court system, but visitors to downtown Denver will have a much easier time remembering it thanks to a soaring new Supreme Court building just across the street from the golden-domed Capitol.
With a glass dome and atrium that opens up to a view of the Capitol, the building conveys a constant and not-so-subtle message to the governor and legislators across the street: We’re here, and we’re watching you.
Shortly before the court moved in, Chief Justice Michael Bender and architect Curtis Fentress gave a tour, and Fentress pointed through the glass atrium to the Capitol.
“You can sense the feeling that this is connected to the Capitol – the third branch of government,” Fentress said.
“Co-equal,” Bender chimed in.
The Ralph L. Carr Judicial Center partially opened this month, and more agencies will continue to move in throughout the winter.
It’s a two-building complex that includes a courthouse for the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals, plus a 12-story office building for the attorney general’s office and eight other state legal agencies. About 1,100 employees will work in the new buildings.
The Legislature in 2008 raised the fee to file lawsuits in order to pay for the complex. The state is also saving money by not renting office space around Denver for its legal agencies.
It cost $258 million, but the repayment of debt will take 35 years and will cost more than $600 million.
Even without a swanky courthouse, the Supreme Court has managed to keep itself in the spotlight in recent years. In 2006, it kept an illegal-immigration measure off the ballot, and its rulings have shaped the state’s congressional districts for the last decade. It also has cleared the way for the Legislature to raise some taxes and increase school funding.
Republicans in the Legislature have been critical of the high court, calling it one of the most partisan courts in the country. Five of the seven judges were appointed by Democratic governors, although Gov. John Hickenlooper’s appointment, Justice Brian Boatright, is a Republican.
With the new building, the courts are trying to become a more visible part of the government and more accessible to average Coloradans. An education center on the first floor will be open to the public. It’s geared to adults and students in grades eight and up.
The former Supreme Court building was not nearly as inviting. It was a gray rectangle on top of two small entryways on the first floor. Each had room for little more than a security checkpoint and an elevator shaft, and all the offices were on the second floor and above. The building lasted only 33 years.
The new court sits on the same block as the old Supreme Court building and state history museum. Both were demolished and replaced by the Ralph L. Carr complex and a new History Colorado museum, which opened earlier this year a block to the south.
Ready for a closeup
The new courthouse is built to last a century. Its courthouses have cameras pre-installed, even though the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals don’t broadcast their proceedings.
That could change, though.
“At the moment, the court is deciding about live video and audio,” Bender said.
Attorney General John Suthers will move his staff of more than 400 into the office tower by March. His corner office overlooks Civic Center Park, which is notorious for drug-dealing and “4/20” marijuana rallies.
“I’ll be able to see the pot smoke rising from Civic Center plaza,” said Suthers, a staunch opponent of marijuana legalization.
Currently, Suthers’ office occupies a 10-story building just north of the Capitol.
That building will be empty after the move, but the Legislature has already claimed at least two floors for future office space.
Joe Hanel/Durango Herald