The long-awaited new $80 million federal courthouse in downtown Billings quietly opened for business this week.
All three federal judges in the Billings division held routine hearings Wednesday in two of the three new courtrooms as construction workers continued with finishing touches throughout the five-story building at 2601 Second Ave. N.
A formal opening and dedication of the building is planned for Sept. 18; an open house for the public and news media is tentatively set for Sept. 17.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Carolyn Ostby presided over her first hearings Wednesday afternoon, even as she was still settling into her new chambers.
“We’re very excited. It will take a little while before everything is put away,” Ostby said. "But work doesn’t wait."
Ostby’s fourth-floor courtroom is the smallest of the three courtrooms but is bigger than her old courtroom in the James F. Battin Federal Courthouse.
Senior U.S. District Judge Jack Shanstrom used Ostby’s courtroom Wednesday for criminal cases because his fifth-floor courtroom was not quite finished. Chairs were still waiting to be assembled.
Chief U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull conducted several criminal hearings in his courtroom, also the fifth floor.
“I like that it will be much better for lawyers and litigants. The courtroom will be so much better for the lawyers to represent their clients,” Ostby said.
The old courtroom, where Ostby used to practice and then presided, was so small it wasn’t safe, she said. At times, the court and staff, lawyers, clients, prisoners, security officers, jurors and the public were crammed to within a few feet of each other.
The new courtrooms have nearby detention cells for prisoners, and the elevator system eliminates the need for prisoners to be taken in and out through public areas.
The new courtroom is “just safer all around,” Ostby said.
Two small meeting rooms off the hallway into the courtroom give lawyers and their clients a place for confidential conversations instead of having to whisper as they did in the hallways of the old courthouse, she said. A third conference room is located off the lobby.
The magistrate judge’s chambers are smaller than in the old courthouse but Ostby said her office space is better organized and will be “a much better place to get things done.”
Big windows provide lots of natural light, making it “so much easier on our eyes with all the reading,” Ostby said.
The judges were invited to name their courtrooms, which are identified by placards in the lobbies.
Ostby named hers after Ella Louise Knowles, who advanced civil rights in Montana in the late 1800s and early 1900s. After writing legislation to allow women to practice law, Knowles became the first woman admitted to Montana’s federal and state courts. Knowles also became the first woman to run for statewide office and was president of the Montana Women’s Suffrage Association. She died in 1911, three years before women gained the right to vote.
A trailblazer herself, Ostby is the first female federal judge in Montana.
“And still the only,” she noted. “But I’m grateful to be here. I’m not complaining,” she said.
Cebull named his courtroom Snowy Mountains, after the Big and Little Snowy ranges in central Montana.
Shanstrom named his the Bighorn Courtroom, after the river and canyon in south-central Montana.
Much of the building’s interior is almost stark, with white floors and brown walls. The most distinguishing features are the fourth- and fifth-floor lobbies.
Large windows on the west side connect the two floors and provide wide-angle views of downtown Billings. The fifth-floor lobby curves above the fourth floor, while an open staircase on the north end connects the two floors. A large rooftop patio extending from the fourth-floor lobby is landscaped with shrubs and trees.
All of the courtrooms are similarly arranged and furnished with wooden benches for the public and tables and cushioned chairs for lawyers and jurors. Natural light from windows is combined with recessed lighting.
In each, a Great Seal of the United States hangs on the wall above the bench. Counsel tables are joined in an L-shape on one side of the well; the jury box is on the other side. Each juror can view a computer screen in front of his chair. Courtroom spectators will be able to view court documents on two large flat screens mounted on the walls.
The courthouse and courtrooms also reflect American Indian themes.
Swinging doors that divide the public gallery from the well in the courtrooms bear a tepee motif. There is a tepee village scene on the glass wall in the building's main entrance.
The fourth floor is named the Elouise Cobell Hall, after Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet Nation, who fought a 16-year battle in federal courts to hold the federal government accountable for mismanaging billions of dollars in land trust royalties for American Indians. She died in 2011, shortly after the case was settled for $3.4 billion.
The name of the new courthouse has not yet been determined. Sally Mayberry, a GSA spokeswoman, said Montana’s senators will be in charge of that process.
Besides the courts, the new building houses the Clerk of Court, U.S. Probation Office, U.S. Marshals Service, U.S. Attorney’s Office and General Services Administration.
The project was funded with $80 million through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The building encompasses 128,742 square feet and was built on a 1.8-acre site once occupied by Montana-Dakota Utilities office and a Wells Fargo drive-up bank.
Construction by Mortensen Construction of Bellevue, Wash., began in October 2010; GSA sought funding for the project in 2007. Federal and local agencies put together a complicated land deal that led ultimately made the location possible.
A history of asbestos problems in the Battin Courthouse led GSA to build new offices for the courts and other agencies. Other federal offices still in the Battin building will be moving to a new building that is under construction on Fourth Avenue North.