Federal Courthouse Construction:

Better Planning, Oversight, and Courtroom Sharing Needed to Address Future Costs

GAO-10-417: Published: Jun 21, 2010. Publicly Released: Jun 21, 2010.

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The federal judiciary and the General Services Administration (GSA) are in the midst of a multibillion-dollar courthouse construction initiative, which has since faced rising construction costs. As requested, for 33 federal courthouses completed since 2000, GAO examined (1) whether they contain extra space and any costs related to it; (2) how their actual size compares with the congressionally authorized size; (3) how their space based on the judiciary's 10-year estimates of judges compares with the actual number of judges; and (4) whether the level of courtroom sharing supported by the judiciary's data could have changed the amount of space needed in these courthouses. GAO analyzed courthouse planning and use data, visited courthouses, modeled courtroom sharing scenarios, and interviewed judges, GSA officials, and other experts.

The 33 federal courthouses completed since 2000 include 3.56 million square feet of extra space consisting of space that was constructed (1) above the congressionally authorized size, (2) due to overestimating the number of judges the courthouses would have, and (3) without planning for courtroom sharing among judges. Overall, this space represents about 9 average-sized courthouses. The estimated cost to construct this extra space, when adjusted to 2010 dollars, is $835 million, and the annual cost to rent, operate and maintain it is $51 million. Twenty-seven of the 33 courthouses completed since 2000 exceed their congressionally authorized size by a total of 1.7 million square feet. Fifteen exceed their congressionally authorized size by more than 10 percent, and 12 of these 15 also had total project costs that exceeded the estimates provided to congressional committees. However, there is no requirement to notify congressional committees about size overages. A lack of oversight by GSA, including not ensuring its space measurement policies were understood and followed and a lack of focus on building courthouses within the congressionally authorized size, contributed to these size overages. For 23 of 28 courthouses whose space planning occurred at least 10 years ago, the judiciary overestimated the number of judges who would be located in them, causing them to be larger and costlier than necessary. Overall, the judiciary has 119, or approximately 26 percent, fewer judges than the 461 it estimated it would have. This leaves the 23 courthouses with extra courtrooms and chamber suites that, together, total approximately 887,000 square feet of extra space. A variety of factors contributed to the judiciary's overestimates, including inaccurate caseload projections, difficulties in projecting when judges would take senior status, and long-standing difficulties in obtaining new authorizations and filling vacancies. However, the degree to which inaccurate caseload projections contributed to inaccurate judge estimates cannot be measured because the judiciary did not retain the historic caseload projections used in planning the courthouses. Using the judiciary's data, GAO designed a model for courtroom sharing, which shows that there is enough unscheduled time for substantial courtroom sharing. Sharing could have reduced the number of courtrooms needed in courthouses built since 2000 by 126 courtrooms--about 40 percent of the total number--covering about 946,000 square feet of extra space. Some judges GAO consulted raised potential challenges to courtroom sharing, such as uncertainty about courtroom availability, but others indicated they overcame those challenges when necessary, and no trials were postponed. The judiciary has adopted policies for future sharing for senior and magistrate judges, but GAO's analysis shows that additional sharing opportunities are available. For example, GAO's courtroom sharing model shows that there is sufficient unscheduled time for 3 district judges to share 2 courtrooms and 3 senior judges to share 1 courtroom.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: In order to improve the planning and oversight for future courthouse construction projects, to increase the efficiency of courtroom usage through courtroom sharing, and to ensure that future courthouses are built within the congressionally authorized gross square footage, the Administrator of GSA should establish sufficient internal control activities to ensure that regional GSA officials understand and follow GSA's space measurement policies throughout the planning and construction of courthouses. These control activities should allow for accurate comparisons of the size of a planned courthouse with the congressionally authorized gross square footage throughout the design and construction process.

    Agency Affected: General Services Administration

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: In order to improve the planning and oversight for future courthouse construction projects, to increase the efficiency of courtroom usage through courtroom sharing, and to ensure that future courthouses are built within the congressionally authorized gross square footage, the Administrator of GSA should, in order to avoid requesting insufficient space for courtrooms based on the AnyCourt model's identification of courtroom space needs, establish a process, in cooperation with the Director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, by which the planning for the space needed per courtroom takes into account GSA's space measurement policy related to tenant floor cuts if a courthouse may be designed with courtrooms that have tenant floor cuts.

    Agency Affected: General Services Administration

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: In order to improve the planning and oversight for future courthouse construction projects, to increase the efficiency of courtroom usage through courtroom sharing, and to ensure that future courthouses are built within the congressionally authorized gross square footage, the Administrator of GSA should report to congressional authorizing committees when the design of a courthouse exceeds the authorized size by more than 10 percent, including the reasons for the increase in size.

    Agency Affected: General Services Administration

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: In order to improve the planning and oversight for future courthouse construction projects, to increase the efficiency of courtroom usage through courtroom sharing, and in planning for future space needs, the Director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, on behalf of the Judicial Conference of the United States, should improve the accuracy of its 10-year estimation of judges by retaining caseload projections for at least 10 years for use in analyzing their accuracy and incorporating additional factors into the judiciary's 10-year judge estimates, such as past trends in obtaining judgeships.

    Agency Affected: Administrative Office of the United States Courts

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: In order to improve the planning and oversight for future courthouse construction projects, and to increase the efficiency of courtroom usage through courtroom sharing, the Director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, on behalf of the Judicial Conference of the United States, should expand nationwide courtroom sharing policies to more fully reflect the actual scheduling and use of district courtrooms.

    Agency Affected: Administrative Office of the United States Courts

  6. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: In order to improve the planning and oversight for future courthouse construction projects, and to increase the efficiency of courtroom usage through courtroom sharing, the Director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, on behalf of the Judicial Conference of the United States should distribute information to judges on positive practices judges have used to overcome challenges to courtroom sharing.

    Agency Affected: Administrative Office of the United States Courts

 

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