New federal courthouse dedicated

By Clair Johnson

More than 200 people, including ranking members of the federal judiciary and all of Montana's federal judges, gathered Tuesday in Billings to dedicate the state's newest federal courthouse on its signature rooftop garden patio.

"This is a new treasure for Montana. It's going to be wonderful for the city," said U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan, of the District of Columbia and director of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts.

Calling the new $80 million courthouse that was designed and built in a record 27 months a remarkable achievement, Hogan said the courthouse is "here to provide equal justice to citizens."

The fourth-floor garden patio on the building's west side was inaugurated on Tuesday morning, accommodating a standing-room-only crowd that included Montana's federal judiciary, Ninth Circuit judges, court staff, contractors, architects, Department of Justice agency officials, local government representatives and other invited guests.

Montana Chief U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull, who helped oversee the project, served as master of ceremonies.

Cebull thanked Montana U.S. Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester, both Democrats, for "making this courthouse a reality" by securing funding. "We are now here on a roof garden, believe it or not. Without these two senators, we wouldn't be here," he said.

Baucus also is working to pass a bill that would transfer the James F. Battin Federal Courthouse name from the old courthouse to the new courthouse.

The five-story courthouse at 2601 Second Ave. N., has three courtrooms and replaces the old courthouse, which has a history of asbestos problems and is scheduled to be sold at a public auction next spring.

A new $30 million federal office under construction at 2021 Fourth Ave. N., will house mostly Department of Interior agencies now located in the old courthouse.

Owned by the General Services Administration, the new courthouse was paid for with stimulus dollars in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, with $40 million going into the local economy and more than 60 percent of the work going to Montana businesses.

In addition to being outfitted with high-tech equipment, the 128,742-square-foot courthouse also is a green building designed to use 30 percent less energy than a typical building of the same size.

The courthouse was designed and built by Mortenson Construction, based in Minnesota, along with NBBJ, an architectural firm in Seattle.

Hogan noted the building's architecture as reflective of the Rimrocks and its design as curing problems found in older courthouses from security issues to having "a real grand jury room" not simply a remodeled office.

"We're going to treat the public a lot better as we should," Hogan said.

Hogan also gave special recognition to the new Elouise Cobell Hall and Jury Assembly room. Cobell was a Blackfeet tribal member whose 16-year court battle to hold federal government accountable for mismanaging land trust royalties for American Indians led to a $3.4 billion settlement for half a million American Indians in 2011. Cobell died shortly after the settlement. Hogan, who presided over the case and knew Cobell personally, called her "a remarkable woman."

To those who question spending $80 million on courthouse, Hogan said federal courthouses embody civil values and the rule of law. "This is a serious place meant to provide equal justice," he said. As such, the buildings should look like places of justice and, like museums or places of worship, should inspire awe and respect.

The new courthouse also could be one of the last built in the country for a while because federal funds are in short supply, Hogan said.

"We need courthouses worthy of doing justice," he said.

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