The Ottumwa Courier

March 2, 2013

Symbolism and functionality

Court Calls


OTTUMWA — Most courtrooms are designed to facilitate the search for truth that goes on there. A keystone of government in the United States, and a principle that inspires public confidence in the Rule of Law, is a constitutional assurance that justice is accomplished in transparent process by an independent branch of government. It is because our country’s courts are open to the people that the people have confidence in them.

Because courts are open to the public, the people are accorded ample space in the gallery to observe what goes on. There is often a divider delineating the difference between the onlookers and the folks involved in the dispute. The parties and their licensed lawyers are entitled to work in this part of the courtroom, in front of the “bar.” In recognition of this ability to traverse to the front of the courtroom to help others, when lawyers become licensed, we often say they are “admitted to the bar.” And, collectively they call themselves “bar associations.”

The judge’s bench — whether it be a crafted structure of wood, or just a desk — rises above floor level at the head of the courtroom. The higher placement allows the judge a vantage point from which to preside. The stature of the bench — its scale, central placement and elevation, are symbolic of the prominent responsibility the judge fulfils in conducting a trial.

If the trial is by jury, that decision-making body is reserved a special spot in the courtroom, the jury box. As “judges of the facts,” jurors are accorded heightened placement in the courtroom, not only to reflect the prestige of their function, but also to allow them a commanding view of the courtroom action: the parties and their lawyers, the witnesses, the unfolding evidence.

Once a witness is qualified through taking the oath, or making an affirmation, to tell the truth, he or she steps onto the witness stand. The elevated position denotes the high calling of the witness who has an important job to do. The stand is situated in clear view, near the judge’s bench and the jury box to afford opportunity for the fact-finder to observe the speaker’s demeanor and hear the testimony.  

I invite you to visit a courtroom so you can note the design and appreciate the purpose of the forum and its utility in the search for truth.  

Judge DeGeest has served the last three years as a district associate judge in several counties. Recently Gov. Branstad appointed him to the district bench; the official investiture is March 8 in Oskaloosa. Judge DeGeest may be reached at