Spotlight: U.S. Courts

Which “agency” forms one of the federal government’s three separate and distinct branches? The U.S. Courts—also known as the judicial branch, the federal judiciary and the federal courts—were created under Article III of the U.S. Constitution, and include the Supreme Court of the United States, district courts, appellate courts, bankruptcy courts and courts of special jurisdiction. District courts are the trial courts of the federal court system, and have jurisdiction over nearly all categories of federal criminal and civil cases. There are 94 federal judicial districts, including at least one in each state, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. Those 94 districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a federal court of appeals. (A 13th court of appeals for the federal circuit has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals in specialized cases.)

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts was established in 1939 to serve as the central support entity for the judicial branch. It provides a wide range of professional services to meet the needs of judges and the more than 32,000 judiciary employees working at more than 800 locations nationwide. It is headquartered in the Thurgood Marshall Federal Judiciary Building at 1 Columbus Circle, N.E., in Washington, D.C., adjacent to Union Station and just a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol. Designed by Edward Larrabee Barnes and completed in 1992, the structure features a dramatic five-story atrium and was named for the first African-American justice of the Supreme Court. It was developed through an innovative financing package in which the Architect of the U.S. Capitol agreed to lease the site to the developer (Boston Properties) and to lease the finished building for 30 years, after which it will revert to the government at no cost.

An even more prominent federal court building in the nation’s capitol is, of course, the U.S. Supreme Court Building at 1 First Street, N.E. Finished and occupied in 1935, it was designed by Cass Gilbert in a neoclassical revival style, with broad steps and 16 Corinthian columns that give it a monumental entrance. The steel frame structure is faced with white marble. In addition to the Great Hall; the Court Chamber; the Justices’ Chambers, Library and Dining Room; and numerous offices, the building also houses a fifth-floor gym with a basketball court, appropriately known as “the highest court in the land.”

While the federal judiciary operates courthouses throughout the nation, many have been or will be closed as the result of an ongoing series of cost-cutting measures. Last month (September 2012), the Judicial Conference of the United States (the federal judiciary’s national policy-making body) agreed to close six non-residential federal court facilities, in Amarillo, Texas; Beaufort, S.C.; Gadsen, Ala.; Meridian, Miss.; Pikeville, Ky.; and Wilkesboro, N.C. Each of these facilities has a courtroom but no full-time resident federal judge; release of these courtroom spaces is expected to save the judiciary about $1 million a year in rent. Yet even as some courthouses and courtrooms are being closed, new ones are opening. A new federal courthouse was dedicated last month in downtown Billings, Mont., replacing an aging facility that had significant security and asbestos problems; another opened in Bakersfield, Calif., in July. For a list of all new courthouse project locations and their current status, see this site; for GSA’s five-year courthouse plan (for FY 2013 through 2017), see this site.

For fiscal year 2013, the federal judiciary is seeking $7.19 billion in appropriations, a 3.1 percent funding increase—and the lowest requested increase on record. In FY 2012, it was granted $6.97 billion, only about 1% above its FY 2011 appropriation.

Thurgood Marshall Federal Building