Adjacent to Greatness, Without Cohesion: A Rhetorical History of Judiciary Square and Its Exclusionary Built Environment

It can be said that the Judiciary Square area of Washington D.C. is an inclusive place, a place for every citizen, acting as an asset to the civil functionality of the entire city, despite its high profile clientele. In this essay, I will argue that the environment of Judiciary Square actually does the opposite, appearing inherently exclusionary, and intended for a selective audience. According to the District of Columbia Courts’ website, Judiciary Square and the buildings within it represent an environment of refined greatness, dedicated to history, and adjacent to the monumental core of Washington D.C. The area itself, located north of Pennsylvania Avenue, abides outside the action and tourism of the Capitol. For those individuals with no knowledge of the city’s structure or geography, Judiciary Square itself would be an area unnoticed by the public eye. It functions for convenience; it is a place where politicians, judges and lawyers can easily commute. Judiciary Square provides a site where those in the public judiciary sector can uproot themselves from the hustle and bustle of Washington D.C., as well as the tourists, and thrive within their own, compact anthill of the law. It seems as though the District of Columbia Courts wants to keep it this way. There is a certain inexplicable privacy that dwells in the conversation and day-to-day activities around Judiciary Square, and when visiting the site itself, it is very apparent in its environment alone. In seeking out an explanation for the inherently private aura that this area has, one could look to the District of Columbia Courts’ website for information.

The website itself provides plenty of information on a variety of areas, if you can figure out how to navigate it. The purpose of the D.C. Courts’ website seems to be educational, with tabs targeting the public and legal professionals, along with jurors. The website targets a sense of logos, citing specific, credible sources related to the D.C. Courts. Despite the educational messages the site alludes to, its target audience is not clear. The design of the site itself is unremarkable, using a simple color scheme and low quality images right on its front page. Its header bears the insignia for the District of Columbia Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, neither of which seem recognizable on first glance. The home page features a rotating feed of “D.C. Courts in the News,” showcasing headlines involving candidates and judges, but very little else. Though the intention of the website appears educational, it is very difficult to locate information on a specific topic. After extensive searches and exploring nearly every tab featured on the site, one may be able to find some information, located deep within the archives of this rather maze-like website. Perhaps the site is intentionally difficult to navigate, just as the judiciary system is. Judiciary Square itself is an amalgamation of different buildings and architecture styles with little cohesion, just as the website for the District of Columbia Courts is. If their intended audience was students looking to learn about the way the judiciary system of D.C. works, then the students would have an incredibly difficult time finding any of that information. The only educational diagram offered by the website is rather low quality, and ultimately confusing (see fig. 1).

Organizational chart from Judiciary Square website
Fig.1: “Organizational Structure.” Organizational Structure: District of Columbia Courts.

If the intended audience for this diagram is instead legal professionals, then the website is also incredibly confusing. The resource page for legal professionals is a mish mosh of poorly organized links and documents that any judge or lawyer would be put off by. The intended effect that the site seems to lean towards is that the D.C. Courts are highly productive and offer a lot of information for interested parties. The images shown on the website either have a smiling child in a courtroom, a group of students learning in a courtroom, or a smiling judge. These images intend to make individuals feel like the D.C. Court system is doing its job, and offers a welcoming and cohesive environment for all, appealing to the pathos of site-goers. The actual effect of the D.C. Courts’ website is that the site itself is rather ineffectual. It is hard to navigate, and frustration grows from trying to use its interface effectively. Its overall aesthetic is not pleasing to the eye, and it feels like a boring government website. The rhetoric used on the site, especially when it comes to headlines, uses a lot of law and government terms, instead of simple language that urges the reader to pursue information further. Just as Judiciary Square, the home of the D.C. Courts, feels like an exclusive environment, its website also feels exclusive. It seems as if you really need to know your way around the judiciary system in order to navigate this website correctly, which is the same environment that Judiciary Square itself exudes.

It makes one wonder, why is the rhetoric surrounding Judiciary Square so exclusive? What is it about this area of Washington D.C. that makes one feel like they are an outsider looking in? The D.C. Courts’ website explains the History of Judiciary Square, buried deep inside the archives of its domain. The history begins by providing a background into the location of Judiciary Square; it explains that its location “adjacent to the monumental core of Washington D.C.” makes it an important location, intended to be a “municipal center of the city.” Along with the location of Judiciary Square, the buildings of Judiciary Square were also built across several different years, beginning in 1820 and culminating in the 1970s with the construction of the H. Carl Moultrie Courthouse. Though the site states that the buildings were intended to have a cohesive flow that mirrored the architecture originally planned by city designer Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the buildings lack any sort of true cohesion in person (see fig. 2).

Judiciary Square buildings of different architecture styles
Fig. 2: Judiciary Square Park

Judiciary Square is also home to several different sculptures, none of which demonstrate any noticeable cohesion between them. The first sculpture was constructed at the end of the Civil War, days after Lincoln’s assassination on April 15, 1865. This statue was the first public monument dedicated to Abraham Lincoln. The statue itself has been moved around the square during different points of construction, and no longer sits in the center. In the 1920s, the Joseph J. Darlington Fountain was built to commemorate the leader of the Washington Bar Association, along with a statue of South American liberator Jose de San Martin. These three leaders could not be more different, yet they are cornerstones to the rich history that Judiciary Square advertises on its website. The area itself also has some residential communities, and used to be home to Vice President John C. Calhoun, a man known notoriously for doing the opposite of what leaders like Abraham Lincoln were striving to achieve. There is a lack of cohesion and narrative in the environment of the area, and the confusing rhetoric of Judiciary Square continues in 2017.

Judiciary Square is clearly a place incredibly exclusive in nature, with few pedestrians walking about, and a dense population of government officials taking up space. The built environment surrounding this square in D.C. is odd, and does not exude a consistent narrative. It feels like a place built to keep government officials in, and everyone else out, in the United States Capitol of all places. When one thinks of the message embodied by Washington D.C., it is all about inclusion, not exclusion. But when you take a visit to Judiciary Square, you feel inherently unsure, unenthused, and unwelcome.

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