Since the Hennepin County Government Center opened in 1976, a windowless and Wi-Fi-challenged room in the building's basement has been the entry point for hundreds of thousands of the criminal justice system's most important visitors — potential jurors.
Tucked one story beneath S. 6th Street in downtown Minneapolis, the jury assembly room often rumbles from the vibration of the semitrailer trucks driving over the road above it. The room also is near the center's disposal trash facility, which potential jurors must walk past to get to the elevators that lead to the courtrooms where they are selected for trial.
But jurors won't be gathering in that room much longer.
By fall, a sparkling new assembly room placed in the nearly 14,000-square-foot law library on the Government Center's 24th floor will provide potential jurors with a whole new experience — and a whole lot of sunlight.
The project, budgeted at about $2.5 million, will include a more time-efficient security process, improved cellphone service and workstations, a prayer room and a cafe-style area with vending machines. It also will include space for the court's scheduling staff, a spot for court and county ceremonies and events, and windows — lots of windows.
"Jurors have lots of down time, and we need to be respectful of that," said Assistant Chief Judge Ivy Bernhardson. "More services and better space. This is a physical 'thank you.' "
In 2014 alone, more than 27,000 people spent hours waiting in the basement assembly room during the jury selection process.
A majority were eventually picked to head upstairs, where they'd spend days serving on juries for one of the 732 criminal and civil trials, which account for 40 percent of the trials statewide.
For all their time, jurors receive only a $10 daily per diem, which often doesn't cover parking or other expenses.
The idea of putting them in more comfortable quarters began several years ago, when the county, out of a continuing desire to establish the best security for the building, took a fresh look at the assembly room, Bernhardson said.
The process of moving jurors is time consuming, causing 20- to 40-minute delays each time a group is escorted to a courtroom for selection, said Pam Kilpela, jury manager for the past 10 years.
The library is able to free up space for the assembly room because much of the material in the volumes being removed is contained in digital format and available to our users through the library online, said Karen Westwood, senior administrator of the library. Some of the removed material will also be stored in compact shelving elsewhere in the government center and will remain available for same-day retrieval, she said.
Self-help services are in a no way a replacement for a law library, she said. Rather, library works closely with the self-help center to provide mutual referrals and the highest possible service to our users, she said.
The library will remain open throughout construction of the new jury assembly room and will continue to serve judges, attorneys and members of the public, Westwood said.
"This is a win-win for both institutions," said former chief judge and chair of the library Kevin Burke.
In the new assembly room, jurors will be able to "self-check" themselves out without security supervision. More televisions will provide jury orientation tutorials or be tuned to entertainment shows on the history and cooking channels during down time.
"Research shows jurors generally are not too happy to be on trial duty," Bernhardson said. "But we understand the importance of service and the juror's environment should match it."
In preparation for the move, the county researched courthouses that recently upgraded their assembly rooms. On jury surveys, cellphone service was usually a top priority, Kilpela said.
In contrast to the new digs, the old assembly room has a small television viewing room and business center. It also is stocked with a large pile of card and board games, most of which will likely make the move upstairs, she said.
Letters from jurors plaster the walls. An array of large plant and wildlife photos donated by the county park's division also fill the room — the most significant "design" addition to the space over the past eight years, Kilpela said.
Jurors aside, the basement location also didn't make for the healthiest work environment for staffers, who have needed a special air cleaning machine to reduce allergies.
Once the new room is built, the old space is expected to be repurposed for nonpublic office use.
For a few, however, the move may be a bit bittersweet.
For all the time jurors spend in the assembly room and at trial, a few romances are bound to blossom.
One jurist was so smitten with the court reporter that they later ended up getting married.