August 2012: Budget Hawks Take Aim at Courthouse Construction

Washington Watch | August 2012
By Bruce Moyer

Federal courthouses are emblematic of the American legal system. They are the workshops where federal justice is crafted and dispensed. As inspiring physical structures, courthouses symbolize the permanence of America's laws and the rule of law. Some architecture critics have even praised federal courthouses as among the most impressive of all federal buildings in the nation.

But federal courthouses have become an increasingly sensitive subject on Capitol Hill. Congressional scrutiny is being aimed not at existing brick-and-mortar, but at future courthouses the federal judiciary wants to build. That pushback comes amid rising tensions between the legislative and judicial branches, overarching questions about how well federal properties are being managed, and the broad, increasing demands to cut federal spending.

It wasn’t always like this. Over the past two decades, the federal judiciary, with the aid of Congress, managed to construct more than 70 new courthouses or additions as part of a multibillion dollar spending initiative. That construction campaign provided a number of sorely needed federal courtrooms, judges' chambers, and security improvements throughout the country. But recently, Congress has shifted from largesse to scrutiny over the judiciary's needs for more courthouses and facilities. Oversight particularly has focused on the concern that the General Services Administration (GSA), the federal government's landlord, in some cases exceeded the building plans that Congress originally approved. Congress also has pushed the judiciary to study its utilization of courtrooms, which ultimately has led to the adoption of courtroom sharing policies for future courthouse construction and the revision of methods for projecting future space needs.

The process itself of getting Congress to approve the design, financing, and building of a new federal courthouse is a mammoth challenge. This is complicated by the fact that the judiciary itself does not have real property authority. It must rely on GSA to secure congressional approval for all new federal courthouse construction as well as repairs and alterations to existing facilities. Several different congressional oversight and appropriations committees ultimately must approve the construction and funding plans. Scrutiny by members of Congress looking for ways to cut the federal budget deficit has made federal courthouse construction a tempting target. Congressional and budget-related pressures, in fact, have caused GSA to curtail its recent funding requests. GSA scandals over agency conference spending and other management miscues have further heightened congressional resistance to GSA’s plans in a number of areas, including courthouse construction.

This turn of events has placed added pressure on achieving the Judicial Conference's Five-Year Courthouse Project Plan, on which GSA’s annual funding request may be based. The current five-year plan stretching to 2017 envisions more than a billion dollars in spending for the design and construction of 12 courthouses, mostly located in the southern United States. Those projects involve construction or site and design work on federal courthouses in: Mobile, Ala.; Nashville, Tenn.; Savannah, Ga.; San Antonio, Texas; Charlotte, N.C.; Greenville, S.C.; Harrisburg, Pa.; Norfolk, Va.; Anniston, Ala., Toledo, Ohio, Chattanooga, Tenn.; and Des Moines, Iowa. Whether plans at those sites move ahead in the upcoming appropriations cycles is uncertain.

Even more problematic is the fate of a new federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles. For many years the judiciary has declared that the existing courthouse complex in Los Angeles is its most necessary project. The current Depression-era federal courthouse suffers from serious security and asbestos problems, according to court officials. Although the project has been planned for more than a decade, with almost $400 million approved by Congress, actual construction has not begun. In the meantime, building costs have escalated, as have questions on the need for such a large courthouse as has been planned, causing the original plan to be scaled back.

A key House Republican has been particularly opposed to the LA courthouse project: Rep. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.), chair of the House subcommittee overseeing GSA, introduced legislation last year to put the building site up for sale at an estimated price of $25 million. That measure was passed by a House committee and divided the California congressional delegation. In June, Rep. Denham went further and had language inserted into a House appropriations bill that prevents the Justice Department from spending money to place staff of the U.S. Attorney's Office and the U.S. Marshal's Service in the building, whenever it is built. That provision is unlikely to make it into final law in light of strong support of the LA courthouse project in the Senate and by other lawmakers in the House. Nonetheless, the battle to build the Los Angeles courthouse testifies to the challenge of building federal courthouses in these politically turbulent times.

Bruce Moyer is government relations counsel for the FBA. © 2012 Bruce Moyer. All rights reserved.

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