Federal Courts Downsizing

Supreme CourtEven as construction began on a long-awaited, 600,000 SF courthouse in Los Angeles this fall, efforts to downsize or close federal court facilities picked up in pace. Last week, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts announced that $1.7 million in incentives will be claimed by releasing underused space in 31 court facilities back to the General Services Administration (GSA). Further, the Judicial Conference voted to impose a reduction in space inventory of 3% by the close of FY 2018. To some, this is discomfiting news that the Executive Branch’s efforts to freeze the federal footprint now extend to the Judiciary.

In fact, reducing expenditures for space has been part of an aggressive cost-cutting effort by the Judiciary for a decade. Coping with the tightening money supply is the responsibility of the 26-member Judicial Conference of the United States, the principal policy-making body for U.S. court administration. The conference’s Space and Facilities committee, chaired by Judge D. Brooks Smith, oversees the incentive program and views space reduction as its top priority. Since last spring, the conference has also been dealing with nearly $350 million in funding lost through the Sequestration, requiring cuts in both staff and programs. Besides imposing a 3% inventory reduction by FY 2018, the conference in September backed a “No New Net” policy, to take effect at the beginning of FY 2013. Although excluding new construction approved by Congress, the policy requires that any increase in square footage for court use be offset by an equivalent reduction in square footage within the same circuit and the same fiscal year.

Concerns over excess judicial space may have been aggravated by last spring’s report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), charging that $835 million was spent to build unneeded courthouse space from the year 2000 to 2010. That report also contends that maintenance and operations for unused federal courthouse square footage costs over $51 million per year. The GAO blamed much of the overbuilding on inaccurate counts of how many judges would need space and on insufficient sharing of courtrooms, and recommended that the GSA, which manages all federal court space, work with the Judiciary to better estimate judge needs and develop courtroom-sharing plans.

The space reduction incentive program, begun in September 2012, has already proved successful. Funds from incentive payments can go toward local court operating expenses, rather than back to the circuit as in previous programs. About $305,000 will be saved annually in the single most substantial space release project: the closing of a 7,669 SF Boston probation office.  Overall, the planned downsizing and closure of 31 facilities will release 66,341 square feet, and rent savings are projected to pay for the costs of the program, including incentive payments and relocation costs, in approximately two years.

One caveat, however. Upfront funding for the program must be provided through the congressional budgeting process. In the current budgetary climate, long-term investment in more efficient space allocations may not be recognized as a priority.