The Scott M. Matheson Courthouse was dedicated Friday as a symbol of Utah's commitment to justice and public service.

While describing the building as one of the most functional and modern courthouses in the nation, all of the speakers at the ceremony said it's much more than just a building."It symbolizes the coming of age of the judiciary in Utah as a strong, independent, co-equal branch of government," said Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael D. Zimmerman.

Zimmerman, who championed the project since its inception and helped guide it to fruition, said the courthouse also reflects the judiciary's commitment to provide the public with convenient access to the courts and legal services.

"This building is designed to minimize all those unnecessary stresses" that go with most visits to court, Zimmerman said. And like courthouses of old, "it will be a public space that welcomes and doesn't intimidate."

More than 200 of the state's top government, judicial, civic and religious dignitaries attended the dedication ceremony, which took place in the showpiece, five-story rotunda. Also present were the late governor's widow, Norma Matheson, their children, grandchildren and extended fam-ily.

Scott M. Matheson Jr., a University of Utah law professor and former U.S. attorney, said he could think of no more appropriate honor than the naming of the courthouse for his late father.

"He was a lawyer-governor," Matheson said, explaining that Gov. Matheson viewed the public as a lawyer would a client. Also, in Gov. Matheson, the judiciary had one of its strongest advocates, Matheson said.

During his two terms in office between 1977 and 1985, Gov. Matheson appointed 50 judges and was an active supporter of the 1984 amendment to the judicial article. That change in the state Constitution is largely credited with establishing the judiciary as an equal branch of government, Matheson said.

Located across the street from the historic Salt Lake City and County Building at 450 S. State, the $79 million building will house courts and services that until now were scattered throughout the city.

The tenants will include the Utah Supreme Court, Utah Court of Appeals, 3rd District Court Divisions I and II, 3rd District Juvenile Court, Office of Court Administration and other agencies and support offices. Despite the traditional look of its facade and courtrooms, the building features state-of-the-art technology and security.

Gov. Mike Leavitt, who admits to some early skepticism about the project, said Friday that he was "not only a convert but a believer." He called the courthouse "an important symbol of justice in the state" and said it would serve the public well.

At a press conference before the ceremony, many of those involved in the project found themselves answering more questions about a painting in the Supreme Court than any other facet of the new building.

Painted by Utah artist V. Douglas Snow, the towering mural, "Capitol Reef," has been assailed by some legislators, judges and other casual art critics who consider it an inappropriate distraction.

Snow himself responded to that criticism Friday, saying he was "baffled" by it. He said he heard only positive comments from those involved in the selection of the work and others who saw it through its design and development stages.

"I think it's an upbeat, intense, uplifting experience," Snow said.

The $80,000 mural was paid for through a program that sets aside 1 percent of the cost of public buildings for art. Bonnie Stephens, director of the Utah Arts Council, which controlled the selection of art for the courthouse, also defended the painting.

She encouraged the critics to give it a chance, saying, "If people live with that painting for a while, they will come to love it. It's a wonderful painting."

Snow said he doesn't like the idea of leaving the fate of his work up to a popularity poll, arguing it should be decided by people who are knowledgeable and enthusiastic about art.