A northern sky shot through with cold light blue, a train of small, dark-gray clouds away towards a mountain range, and a winding, steep-walled, painted canyon that opens up onto flat land next to a wide shallow river, the water running in ripples where it crosses the rocks, perfect for fishing.
I understood, driving along the I90 that cuts through the southwest quarter of Montana why it is referred to as big sky country, and why our report from that region bears the same name.
But the human environment was also different, for someone from California. Three days later, we had yet to see a person of color.
In a state of 1 million people, two universities dominate the culture of two cities, Missoula with the University of Montana and Bozeman for Montana State University. As is true with university environments, the craft beer culture is strong, and on the first night I stopped in a pub called the Rhino and tried a delicious pilsner from the local Bayern brewery.
The next morning, I was surprised to walk into the state courthouse without going through a metal detector.
The main courtroom had been refurbished and, as it with other courtrooms in the state, the wall between the courtroom and the public corridor outside was made with large panes of glass. The courtrooms are public places and the old courtrooms in Montana very clearly conveyed that message.
A bailiff unlocked the door so I could check out the beautifully appointed courtroom. The judge had his chamber door open just off the end of the bench and heard me talking with the bailiff. So he came out and I introduced myself and our news service.
When I said we were covering civil matters, he looked at his calendar and observed that he did not have a civil matter calendared for another two months. Never above another click on our website, on leaving, I reminded the judge, “Courthouse News Service!”
He smiled politely, possibly quizzically, and turned to the magistrate who had just walked in for an appointment. In a booming voice, the magistrate said, “your honor!”
The federal courthouse in Missoula, a squat, dark, brick affair, had a different vibe. I appeared to be the only member of the public in the small courthouse, but three blue coats greeted me with unsmiling mien and took my cellphone. I was also required to show ID, sign a sheet on a clipboard, provide my destination inside the courthouse, and of course go through a metal scan. I wandered up to the clerk’s office, checked the terminals, admired oil paintings on the walls, and left.
The place certainly did not seem like the public’s building. It was the government’s.
We drove east along the I90 to Butte where the most celebrated landmark is a water filled crater from the Anaconda copper mining operation, now the nation’s largest Superfund site.
The water is loaded with arsenic and a cannon booms across the water intermittently to keep the birds away. Apparently a few swans once landed on the water and promptly died.
At the courthouse, the staff in the clerk’s office is very helpful when we explain our mission and we are directed behind the counter to a terminal with docket information. Our new reporter asks for a couple cases and they quickly produce them.
Logbooks on the shelf go back into the 1800s. The cases mostly involved larceny and debt, as well as, in the book I looked over, a murder charge.
To my amazement, a young reporter from the local newspaper, the Montana Standard, comesin to check the day’s new filings which are still made in paper form. The reporter is young, trim and wears a neat shirt with has a thin tie. He offers to wait on a bench outside the clerk’s office while we monopolize the one terminal for a few more minutes.
Checking the new civil filings is a traditional part of the courthouse beat, but in big city after big city, the tradition has deteriorated as state court bureaucrats push journalists out from behind the counter and delay access to the new e-filings. Here in Butte the tradition was alive and well.
As in Missoula, everybody simply walked into the courthouse, without a security check. It created an odd sensation. It felt like the place belonged to us, the people, a genuinely public building where we were free to come and go.
An old black and white photo at the first stair landing shows the visit of President Teddy Roosevelt in 1903, with throngs surrounding his carriage. Roosevelt in a letter described the scene as “filled with whooping enthusiasm and every kind of whiskey for there were hosts of so-called ‘rednecks’ or ‘dynamiters’ in the crowd.”
I noticed a single black man in the photo. He was driver of the president’s horse-drawn carriage, resplendent in white top hat and tails.
Soon we are back on the I90 now heading south towards Bozeman, where the bureau chief had a craft brewery in mind, passing through a vast western landscape of plains, rivers and mountains.
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