Who is a courthouse for?

The Bucks County Justice Center

4 minute read
The Justice Center under construction (photo via
The Justice Center under construction (photo via

Bucks County officially opened its new $86 million Justice Center, which replaces the ’60s-era building across the street, on Martin Luther King Day. There are 16 high-tech courtrooms with multimedia centers, television screens, and security; the space is available to add three more. The top floor has the judges' chambers with Impressionist-worthy views of Doylestown and the county beyond.

As anyone familiar with the Socratic method of legal learning will know, any judging of the new courthouse and any courthouse must begin with the question of who exactly is the building for. Is it for the judges who will be in the Center every day? Is it for the lawyers who will be advocating for their clients? Is it for the juries? For the staff? Or is it for the citizens who will have their lives changed by the decisions and rulings inside? Should the buildings be intimidating, welcoming, or clinically neutral?

Hate the law, love the lawyer?

The novelist and critic John Gardner, in his essay about Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener, observed that the essence of law is deciding where the boundaries are. The title character is a lawyer's assistant; the lawyer has to decide if Bartleby's "I would prefer not to" is grounds for firing or just an independent view. Shakespeare's Henry VI character, Dick the Butcher, famously said, "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." Most people think it means that the lawyers were the bad guys, but Shakespeare meant just the opposite: Dick wants to tear down civilized society, and the lawyers (and judges) who protect society stand in his way. David McCullough, in his biography of John Adams, reminds us that Adams said his generation were revolutionaries so their children could be doctors, lawyers, and engineers — and their children, in turn, could be poets and entrepreneurs.

Courthouses are not meant to be museums. But law can't function without community, and the arts and business are part of that community. The Bucks County building is adorned with Mercer tiles, designed to represent each community in the county. They're a nice internal start. But if the judges commute in only to sit in the courthouse, if judges only speak with other judges and lawyers only with other lawyers, the new Center won't succeed.

Trials are always good theater. To be the best theater, the judges (and other legal players) need to do more than see the county from the top floors — they need to be part of the community. If the participants walk through the town, read the books in the bookstore, view the paintings and works in the museums, share dinners in the cafés, and visit the rest of the county, then deciding Melville's balances becomes easier; deciding Shakespeare's civility becomes less an equation than an art. Whether the new Center succeeds doesn't just depend on the bricks and technology: Its success, as our founders knew, depends on the People.

You had to know them

To honor the opening of the new Center, the James A. Michener Art Museum is showing portraits of 45 Bucks County judges. The earliest is a painting of Henry Wynkoop (a judge from 1777 to 1789) by Rembrandt Peale. The most artistic painting is an impressionistic rendering of Judge Oscar Bortner by his wife, the artist Selma Bortner. It's the one painting one could hang in a home instead of a courtroom. The largest and nicest painting is of Justice Cynthia Rufe, perhaps because she went on to become a federal judge.

Most of the paintings are complimentary renderings, stylishly done. Some of the judges are painted in their robes, some not; many hold law books (will we see a judge holding an iPad soon?). It's a nice display, most meaningful to those who know the judges. One day it would be nice to see an exhibit of a broader range of artists with legal subject matter, beginning with the works of Honoré Daumier, William Gropper (there's a great painting of his at PAFA), William Hogarth, William Sharp, Charles Bragg, and David Levine.

Above left: Rembrandt Peale, Honorable Henry Wynkoop (1737-1816), Bucks County Court Judge (1777-1789), ca. 1808, 39 x 33 1/2 in. Collection of Northampton Twp. Historical Society

What, When, Where

Bucks County Justice Center, Doyle and Broad Streets, Doylestown, PA.

A Judicial Legacy: Portraits from the Bucks County Courts Collection. Through February 8 at Michener Art Museum, 138 S. Pine St., Doylestown, PA. 215-340-9800 or

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