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Judicial learning center planned for Supreme Court library

Today, visitors to the Missouri Supreme Court’s building are greeted with marble floors, black and white portraits of long-dead judges and lots and lots of books. It can be daunting for adults and boring for children, and even the best-intentioned tour guide will struggle to impart a true sense of what the court system does.

But now, plans are underway to turn part of the courthouse’s second-floor library into a state-of-the-art, interactive space that will help explain the judicial branch of government to a generation raised on screens.

“Suddenly, we saw an opportunity to do more with that space that works for the citizens better but also to really meet kids where they are,” said Betsy AuBuchon, the clerk of the Supreme Court, who has taken her own children on the court’s current tour. “Just talking to them doesn’t do a lot.”

The planned judicial learning center would be a theater space in the library’s east wing. Like the rest of the courthouse, it would feature many portraits of judges. These, however, would be moving, interactive judges portrayed by actors who would talk to each other and the audience about the history of the court and types of cases it hears.

Zoe Linza of the St. Louis-based company MORE STL, which is helping to raise money for the project, described it as a “Harry Potter-ish” display that will help the approximately 20,000 school children who visit each year to understand the judiciary better. For adult visitors, there would be a version that would explain other aspects of the rule of law, such as Missouri’s Nonpartisan Court Plan.

“That third branch of government sometimes gets left behind,” Linza said.

Lynn Ann Vogel, who co-founded MORE STL with Linza, said the holographic judges will be of different races and genders and will portray various points in Missouri history.

“I think the inclusiveness of that is extremely important to children,” Vogel said. “It will give children a more hands-on visual understanding of what judges do and why they could be a judge.”

The project doesn’t currently have public funding. This year, the Supreme Court requested about $1.6 million for library renovations that include the judicial learning center, but the money wasn’t included in the governor’s budget recommendations for the 2024 fiscal year.

Instead, the Supreme Court of Missouri Historical Society, a non-profit organization that is separate from the court, is leading the fundraising effort.

“It certainly fit within our mission to play a supportive role in helping the project come to fruition,” said Heidi Doerhoff Vollet of Cook, Vetter, Doerhoff & Landwehr in Jefferson City, who serves as the society’s secretary-treasurer.

The historical society engaged Linza, the former executive director of the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis, and Vogel, a former president of both The Missouri Bar and BAMSL, to seek contributions for the project within the legal community. Undergirding the effort is the Capitol Complex Tax Credit, an economic development tool that lawmakers created in 2021. It allows a 50 percent tax credit for donations that support the rehabilitation and renovation of several government buildings in downtown Jefferson City, including the Supreme Court building.

Linza and Vogel said they are about a third of the way to goal of just under $1 million. More than 30 individuals and firms have contributed, including the Holland Law Firm; Davis; Bethune & Jones; Dowd Bennett; Husch Blackwell; Langdon & Emison; and Thompson Coburn. They hope to see a ribbon cutting sometime in the next two years.

“This would make all the difference in the world from the perspective of visitors to the court,” Vogel said.