- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 11, 2017

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - It’s been in the works for a while now, and a lot of people are really excited about it.

The state’s new Judicial Learning Center is open to the public.

“It’s beyond our wildest dreams,” now-retired Wyoming Supreme Court Justice Marilyn Kite said, adding that the center aims to enhance the civic knowledge of students and adults, “but it’ll do it in a fun, entertaining way.”

Kite pitched the idea years ago, and the legal community was in full support, said Sharon Wilkinson, the executive director of the Wyoming State Bar.

“I think they understand the need for it,” she said.

The center is located on the first floor of the Wyoming Supreme Court building, in the back corner of the State Law Library, reported the Wyoming Tribune Eagle (https://bit.ly/2j1RAcu).

Eydie Trautwein, Children’s Justice Project coordinator and staff attorney for the Wyoming Supreme Court, said about 1,600 square feet of the library was repurposed for the center.

Visitors first encounter a “staging area” with cubbies, coat hooks and benches, and even a “selfie station” that features a podium, courtroom backdrop and black justice robes to wear while taking photos.

Trautwein said the area also features a white board so teachers can occupy students waiting to tour the center, which can accommodate about 22 people at one time.

The white board features a game called the “preamble scramble,” in which students can race to put magnet pieces of the Constitution together.

There’s also an “Are you smarter than a justice?” trivia game, Trautwein said, adding that all the content and games associated with the center were designed with the state’s social studies standards in mind.

One target audience is fifth- and sixth-graders, because that’s when Cowboy State students begin learning about government. But many agree that the center’s exhibits can be enjoyed by all.

“I think both the Supreme Court and Warehouse Twenty One (the contractor) have done a great job thinking about an educational purpose for the community and for the state of Wyoming,” Liz Edington, a social studies teacher at Cheyenne’s Central High School, said.

“It’s interactive, it’s fun, it’s accessible for various grade levels and age levels, and I think it’s an exciting community outreach project.”

Edington currently is involved with creating lesson plans to go along with the center at the high school level, but she said it can reach younger kids and adults alike.

“Adults, certainly, I think would enjoy it also, and take away from it,” Edington said.

Wyoming’s Judicial Learning Center was inspired by similar centers around the country, such as the Colorado Judicial Learning Center in Denver.

What’s inside?

A large, glass doorway leads into the center, where visitors are greeted by a welcome panel and the “Rule of Law Theater.”

A short and entertaining introductory video plays on repeat in the theater.

The purpose of the film is to show people what functions the courts serve, and that freedom, rights and the courts are real parts of everyday life that need to be preserved.

Trautwein said Warehouse Twenty One had a local casting call and used actors and actresses affiliated with the Cheyenne Little Theater, as well as local attorneys, in the creative video.

The film, which features a child’s voice as the narrator in the form of humorous voiceovers for the various characters, starts by proposing what life would be like without laws or police.

“Without laws, anyone could do anything they wanted,” the narrator says.

The film then explores the function of a monarchy before going into the Founding Fathers, the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.

“I think the intro, the video they created, is a great way to set the framework for the Rule of Law,” Edington said.

The space isn’t particularly large, but it packs a lot into its mix of several static and interactive exhibits.

Exhibits include a “Judicial Milestones” timeline; a three-sided “Hear From a Judge” kiosk; an interactive, touch-screen map about Wyoming’s federal, state and tribal courts; a two-sided, touch-screen “You Be The Judge” station that walks visitors through a criminal, custody or contract dispute case and asks them to decide the outcome; and more.

“‘You Be The Judge’ is a lot of fun,” Edington said. “I think it’s an authentic way to begin to appreciate the role of a justice and the difficult decisions that are made on the bench.”

Wilkinson said one of her favorite exhibits in the center is the “Hear From a Judge” kiosk, which features a telephone, touch-screen and videos of judges answering questions.

“It does talk about a few landmark and historic Wyoming court cases, and it’s a little interactive kiosk, so I think that’s really going to appeal to the kids,” she said.

In one of the “calls,” a judge talks about what animal would make the best judge. (Spoiler alert: He says it’s a horse.)

The “Judicial Milestones” timeline highlights the evolution of Wyoming’s courts from territorial days through modern times.

Organizations such as the Buffalo Bill Cody Museum in Cody and the University of Wyoming’s American Heritage Center contributed photos for the timeline, along with local photographers, Trautwein said.

The timeline features special sections about women’s rights in Wyoming, as well as key decisions regarding water and land law, mineral rights, national parks and more.

There also is an exhibit that discusses judicial selection in Wyoming, which is a merit-based system.

Judges here are nominated by the governor and then retained by voters; they do not campaign for election and re-election.

Lastly, the center features a static exhibit that will eventually become interactive, in which visitors can apply the rules of law to a fictitious case that’s loosely modeled after a real-life 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals decision regarding a snowboarder.

A dream becomes reality

The Wyoming Legislature appropriated $280,000 for the Learning Center back in 2014, but construction couldn’t begin until matching funds were raised through private donations and grants.

Fundraising carried on for quite a while, and construction finally started in June of 2015.

Wilkinson said the Wyoming State Bar helped facilitate funding for the center because the court could not ethically do so on its own or know who or what entities the money was coming from.

The Wyoming State Bar Foundation, which has since dissolved, contributed approximately $173,000 in 2015.

Part of that included memorial contributions that came in from around the country when retired U.S. District Court of Wyoming Judge Clarence Brimmer died in 2014.

Wilkinson said the total amount raised through the bar and the foundation was around $300,000.

In addition to the foundation, contributors included Wyoming lawyers, judges and other citizens.

Kite said the project was “on budget and on time.”

“It’s fabulous,” she said. “We couldn’t be happier.”

Kite said her favorite exhibit is “You Be The Judge” because it helps people better understand the decisions judges have to make and how complicated it can be to weigh many different factors in a case.

Additionally, she said the most fun exhibit to help create was the judicial milestones timeline, which she said gives visitors a “wonderful view of Wyoming.”

Kite said she looks forward to seeing how the center will help advance social studies curriculum in classrooms around the state.

She said it’s been gratifying to see so many different people and groups come together to support and create the center, because no single entity could have accomplished the task it on its own.

Current Chief Justice James Burke also was instrumental in bringing the center to life.

“We’re very excited about its opening,” he said, noting that a lot of people came together to make it a reality.

“It’s an important step in the growth of public trust and confidence, which is so critical to the judicial branch of government,” Burke continued, adding that it has a good story to tell about Wyoming and the country, and will hopefully help more people better understand and appreciate the court system and take steps to protect it.

Burke said he’s especially looking forward to teachers around the state having online access to lesson plans and other material the center will offer, especially in a large, spread out state like Wyoming.

“That’s the part that I’m really excited about,” he said.

Warehouse Twenty One, a local advertising, marketing and design firm based in the historic West Edge of Cheyenne, was contracted to make the center and its exhibits a reality.

Workers were putting finishing touches on the center as stakeholders began touring the exhibits.

“I think anybody that wants to learn is going to come out with a better understanding,” Dean Dexter, one of the owners of Warehouse Twenty One, said.

Dexter said that too often people don’t understand the different branches of government, and “the justice segment is probably the least understood of all.”

His staff not only learned a great deal throughout the process, but they enjoyed themselves, too, he said.

Especially while creating the Rule of Law video, Dexter said it was fun to take complex concepts and distill them down so anybody can quickly and easily grasp them.

“I think it’s exciting that there’s something like this here in the state,” he said.


Information from: Wyoming Tribune Eagle, https://www.wyomingnews.com

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