The Benewah County courthouse in St. Maries once housed the most stately district courtroom in North Idaho in one of the oldest courthouses in the Panhandle.
The district courtroom fell into disrepair over the years, but one of its stewards has diligently tended to it, and still does.
That the main courtroom in the county’s courthouse — designed at the turn of last century by Julius Zittel who also designed some of the most iconic buildings in Spokane — is a smidgen of its former self isn’t lost on Magistrate Judge Douglas P. Payne.
Payne’s chambers next to the main courtroom are spartan, comprised of two oak desks and shelves of law books. On the floor is a case of wood stain and a box of plastic gloves.
“The courtroom was once really majestic,” Payne said. “It was two stories high, with tall windows.”
Over the years, the ceiling was lowered to make room for the jail upstairs. The stately arched windows were blocked off, painted shut, and the courtroom was compressed like a can of tuna.
Visitors to the present day Courtroom One find the room less than magnificent.
It is boxlike, with a low ceiling, and it bears the usual judicial accoutrements that bespeak function over formality.
When Payne arrived in St. Maries in 1994 to fill the spot of county prosecutor, he found a courtroom that resembled a disheveled meeting room for a laborer’s union, instead of a place where the laws of the land were employed to adjudicate cases.
“It needed work to get it to look like a courtroom,” Payne said.
A plywood ramp — to accommodate an earlier judge who used a wheelchair — led to a small, shoddy bench. The witness stand was cramped and ill-fashioned, and the jury box and the gallery was comprised of theater benches and a mishmash of chairs.
“The only thing left from the original courtroom was the bar,” Payne said.
“The rest of it didn’t resemble a courtroom at all. It was just a collection of furniture.”
The former cowboy and logger, who learned to build houses to provide a roof for his family in the early years before his law degree, got to work.
With the help of volunteers, and a lot of oak, he fashioned a judge’s bench, witness stand, jury box and benches for the gallery and jurors. He added wainscoting to the room and paint.
This month, as court gave way to the installation of a new computer system, slimming his calendar and freeing up his time until the latest system is launched in a couple weeks, Payne set aside his gavel for a finishing hammer.
Twenty-two years after he first shored up the place as a prosecutor, Payne went to work again, this time as a judge.
“It needed refinishing,” Payne said. “The oak was starting to yellow.”
He is going with mahogany this time around.
Payne is known in St. Maries for his prowess as an elk hunter — he has built, sold and moved into several houses to accommodate his increasing menagerie of bull elk head mounts — and as a volunteer who was instrumental in building the town’s Logger’s Memorial.
The sound judgment required in his profession is mitered to the work he does with wood, away from the robe.
The tactile jobs are a respite, he said, from working in the abstract, deciphering, ruling and opining.
“Doing something physical, with your hands, is grounding,” he said.
When he came to St. Maries and was greeted with the vague room seemingly devoid of jurisprudence, he took it upon himself to refurbish. He is doing it again this month.
“It’s not a matter of show,” he said. “It’s important for it to reflect the proper respect and tone and demeanor.”
In a county where resources are scarce, getting things done often falls on the community.
“If not me, then who?” he said.