One of the treasures of the newly remodeled Utah State Capitol is the ornate old Supreme Court Chambers.
The chambers, located at the east end of the third floor, has been repainted with the wood benches refinished. It is usually open each day for visitors.
But under a new space plan for the Capitol, senators, whose space borders the chambers, may actually hold some of their committee meetings in the chambers. In addition, internal Senate offices now lie behind the chambers. And through a previous statute and SB112, which passed the Senate Monday, GOP Senate leaders are moving to take official control of more space that used to be controlled by the high court itself.
Utah Supreme Court Chief Justice Christine Durham says that in a perfect world, the third branch of government would like to control the historic spaces it once had in the Capitol.
Since the high court moved its chambers and offices to the Scott M. Matheson State Courthouse located at 400 S. State, the Supreme Court has held oral arguments in its old Capitol chambers at least three or four times a year, Durham said.
And she anticipates that the high court will continue its practice of holding at least one session in the Capitol chambers during each annual 45-day general session. "It is very important that all three branches of government have some space in the Capitol," she said earlier this month, "and that we all can meet at the same time" during the legislative session. Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. also has his offices in the remodeled Capitol.
Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, said "it only makes sense" that the Senate, which has all the office space around the chambers, should schedule to use the chambers itself, a meeting room behind the chambers and an office next to that meeting room.
"We came to this agreement in a conciliatory manner," Valentine said Monday, the first day of the 45-day Legislature. In fact, the meeting room behind the chambers will be both the Senate Rules Committee room and what's known as the "deliberatory" room for the high court justices. And a sign on the door lists both uses.
"We're having a special closet built" at the far end of the Rules Committee room where the justices can change into their robes. And the large table can be used for justices to deliberate following oral arguments in the chambers.
Finally, Senate Rules Committee Chairman Sen. Bill Hickman, R-St. George, will use the office most of the time during the session, but he can temporarily move out if Durham needs the office during a Supreme Court meeting during the general session.
Having the three branches of government is what the original Capitol architects and state leaders in the early 1900s wanted and built for.
Durham said she and other Supreme Court justices have, in a sense of accommodation, acquiesced to GOP Senate leaders' wishes to be in charge of scheduling the use of the chambers and surrounding rooms during the 45-day Legislature. They are willing to that as long as it is clear that the high court can still use the chambers, a room for cloaking (or putting on their black robes) and the Rules room to deliberate after oral arguments both during the Legislature and at other times during the year.
Durham, who sits on the Capitol Preservation Board, which oversees the Capitol Hill complex, said, "It is an important symbolic function" for the high court to meet occasionally in the Capitol chambers.
Some senators have shown pique at the high court over some of its decisions; with one senator even suggesting that judges should come back before the Senate for reappointment at the end of their terms thus giving the politicians the opportunity of removing judges from the bench.
"I don't know if we have" the constitutional or statutory authority to order the Senate to let the justices use their old chambers or other Capitol office space, Durham said."That's why we are working together" with the hope that the Senate will let them in to their old digs whenever they wish, she added.