Pocatello Courthouse Dedication Ceremony (June 4, 1999)
Historical Perspective
by District Judge B. Lynn Winmill*

When it fell upon Judge Pappas and I, as resident Judges in Pocatello, to offer some comments at this Dedication Ceremony, it was suggested by Cam Burke that because of my interest in history, that I might focus my comments on the history of the federal courts in eastern Idaho. I welcomed that suggestion, because it gave me an excuse to spend time going back through the records of the federal courts, peruse old newspapers, and engage in discussions with people who are knowledgable about the history of this area.

I think it is also appropriate on this occasion, to place today’s events in context; to give some thought to the people, the buildings, and the events which have led us to the dedication of this beautiful building today. By reflecting backwards in time, perhaps we can better understand the significance of today’s events and how those events may be viewed 100 years from now.

The story of the federal courts in Idaho really begins with statehood. With Idaho’s admission to the Union in 1890, Congress routinely created the District of Idaho and placed it in the Ninth Circuit, where it remains today. In doing so, they also created a new position, that of United States District Judge for the District of Idaho. Applications for this lifetime position streamed in to President Benjamin Harrison and Attorney General William A. Miller, throughout the fall of 1890. James H. Beatty was the early front-runner for the appointment, but faced the considerable obstacle of being vehemently opposed by both of Idaho’s Republican Senators, George Shoup and Fred Dubois. Despite this considerable opposition, President Harrison nominated James H. Beatty for this position. The New York Herald intimated that this appointment was made by the President to punish the Idaho Senators for not supporting certain legislation that was dear to the President’s heart.

For whatever reason, President Harrison submitted Judge Beatty’s name to the Senate for confirmation in March of 1891. Interestingly enough, Judge Beatty received his commission from the President and began holding court on April 6, while the Senate was still considering whether to confirm the nomination. In fact, it was not until almost a year after Judge Beatty heard his first case, that the United States Senate, over the continuing opposition of Senator Dubois, finally confirmed his nomination.

For the first 7 years of his tenure, Judge Beatty held all court proceedings in Boise. However, in 1898, Congress passed legislation which divided the District of Idaho into three divisions: the Southern Division in the town of Pocatello, the Central Division in Boise City, and the Northern Division in the town of Moscow. The District Judge was to convene court in Pocatello on the second Monday in April and the first Monday in October each year.

In reviewing newspaper reports and docket sheets, it appears that The types of cases which Judge Beatty heard in Pocatello bear some similarity to those heard today. Like today’s court docket, immigration issues were significant. However, unlike today, most of these problems dealt with the deportation of Chinese mineworkers from Lemhi and Custer County under the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1892. Judge Beatty’s civil cases in Pocatello included land disputes on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation (primarily trying to protect tribal lands from non-Indian encroachment). Judge Beatty also heard cases involving water disputes, enjoined labor unions from engaging in strikes, and resolved complex commercial disputes. In addition, Judge Beatty heard a great number of criminal cases in Pocatello. A review of the court records from 1909, reveals that the District Court docket included cases involving theft from the mails, larceny and murder arising on the Reservation, possession of opium, selling cigars without a tax stamp, counterfeiting, transporting a female across state lines for "lascivious" purposes, having carnal knowledge with a female under sixteen years of age, selling liquor without a license, and inciting Indians to break the law. Although such cases bear some similarity to the types of cases heard today, they also provide us with a unique snapshot of life in turn-of-the-century Idaho.

Unfortunately, I have not yet been able to determine where the District Court convened in Pocatello during those early years. By 1908, however, plans were under way to find a permanent home for the federal courts in Pocatello. A site for a combined post office and federal courthouse was purchased at West Lewis and Arthur in 1909. It was an ideal spot -- well within walking distance of the train depot and the towns major hotels, the Yellowstone and the Bannock. However, it was not until 1912 that Congress appropriated $50,000 to start what was to be a $200,000 construction project. On January 19, 1914 the contract was let to an Oregon construction company and ground was broken on February 13, 1914. Construction of the three story building took a little more than two years. On April 9, 1916, the Post Office opened on the main floor, and Judge Frank Dietrich, who had succeeded Judge Beatty in 1907, convened Court in the second floor courtroom on the following day -- April 10, 1916.

The Pocatello Tribune’s reports of the progress in construction and the opening of the Courthouse reflect a great deal of civic pride in the stature and beauty of that the brick and stone structure. The courtroom was described as substantial and beautiful. The building itself was referred to as "the palace." Its builders bragged that it was designed to stand and serve as a federal courthouse for 200 years. Their projections were off by 139 years. That building was used as a courthouse until 1977. During that time, literally hundreds of trials were conducted in that building. I am sure there are lawyers here today who remember trying cases in that substantial gray edifice. Today, that building still stands. The main floor is used as a sports bar and the old Courtroom on the second floor has been converted to offices occupied by Idaho Legal Aid.

Over the last few days, I have wondered about the thoughts of Judge Dietrich, as he climbed down off from the train from Boise, checked into the old Bannock Hotel, and arose the next morning to hear his first trial in the new federal building. As he put on his robes, and the Court bailiff offered his court cry, I wonder if he had a sense of history in the making. I wonder if we have a sense of history in the making here today as Mr. Metcalf summoned Court for this dedication ceremony. I hope so.

I would suggest to you that this building is a direct descendant of that first federal courthouse in Pocatello. Like that first courtroom, we may fairly refer to these surroundings as beautiful. Like that first courthouse, I suppose we may be we may fairly refer to this structure as a palace. But also like that first building, it is a palace of justice. A place where people can come to seek protection of their rights, obtain justice under the law, enforce the criminal laws of this great nation, and obtain relief under the bankruptcy laws enacted by Congress. Its beauty and dignity are not only appropriate, but necessary -- necessary to make clear to all that important business is done here, that issues of significance are resolved in a fair and just manner.

Surely many things have changed over the 73 years which have elapsed since the dedication of that first courthouse in eastern Idaho. Two world wars have been fought, and a great depression survived. We have experienced the social unrest of the 1960s, and survived Presidential scandal ranging from the Teapot Dome Scandal to Watergate to Monica Lewinsky. These courthouses, however, provide evidence of stability and permanence. They provide a physical reminder that regardless of current events, our government and our court system stand as beacons of justice, symbols of equality, and a monument to the rule of law. Whether the building cost $200,000 in 1916 or $10 million today, the message is the same.

In closing, I would also assure you that like the buildings, the work done here is also largely unchanged. Whether it was Judge Beatty or Judge Dietrich adjudicating the rights of Chinese miners or resolving a labor dispute in 1909, or whether it is Judge Lodge presiding over a bank robbery or drug conspiracy trial today, whether it is Judge Williams or Judge Boyle resolving a complicated employment discrimination case, or whether it is Judge Pappas or Myers applying the bankruptcy laws to the dissolution of a substantial agribusiness -- the role of the courts and our obligation is the same -- to apply the law fairly and justly. Hopefully this edifice will provide the public with a continuing sense of confidence that we are performing that task at least as well as our predecessors on the federal bench.

* Judge Winmill became Chief District Judge on July 1, 1999.