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New law center taking shape in old Ada Courthouse, former temporary capitol

Lawmakers, university, court and state officials tour the former Capitol Annex on Monday (Betsy Russell)
Lawmakers, university, court and state officials tour the former Capitol Annex on Monday (Betsy Russell)

Construction is underway at the future Idaho Law & Justice Learning Center, formerly the Capitol Annex, and formerly the old Ada County Courthouse across the street from the state Capitol. Through a collaboration between the Legislature, the state judiciary, and the University of Idaho, the building is being transformed into the future home of the state law library, the Boise branch of the University of Idaho College of Law, and an array of civic education and outreach efforts that will include displays and tours for school groups and the public.

Members of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee joined university and Idaho Supreme Court officials for a tour of the project today; there’s lots of work being done in the building as offices are framed, plumbing and electrical systems modernized and more. Plywood sheathing blocks off and protects the building’s original architectural features, which will keep their original look. The large former courtrooms that served as the Idaho House and Senate chambers for two years while the state Capitol was being renovated will stay largely as-is, becoming large classrooms for the law school. The second floor of the building will become the law library and will be open to the public. The building also will have study spaces for law students, offices and more.

Idaho Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Burdick told the group that the idea for the center was outlined by then-Chief Justice Gerald Schroeder in his State of the Judiciary message to the Legislature in 2007. In 2008 and 2009, the building was temporarily transformed into the Capitol Annex; now, it’s getting remade again. UI President Chuck Staben said, “This is a real collaboration, and it’s very consistent with the U of I’s mission.”

The Legislature allocated $6 million for infrastructure for the building in five phases, to keep the structure usable for any use; the University of Idaho has raised $1.66 million, all from private funds, for the tenant-specific improvements, including a $1 million gift from the Laura Moore Cunningham Foundation.

JFAC Co-Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, said, “I was impressed that they had the vision to do that with it.” She noted that when the state first acquired the building, when Ada County moved out to its newly built courthouse, the thinking was just that the site was within the Capitol Mall and perhaps would be used for parking or other uses. But concerns over the idea of demolishing the historic 1930s art-deco building led to other ideas. “We found it’s a perfect fit for higher education to bring it to Boise,” Bell said. “So it was there, and I’ll be happy when it starts producing.”

The building has been vacant since it served as a temporary Statehouse, but the plans call for it to open as the new Idaho Law & Justice Learning Center in the fall of 2015. Bell said she’d long thought it was “the ugliest building in the mall,” but said after the tour, “It’s amazing what they can do with good bones.”

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Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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