GAO questions judiciary’s system for prioritizing courthouse construction

Here is a very interesting example of the federal judiciary’s interdependence with the rest of the federal government. The responsibility for maintaining and operating the 420 federal courthouses across the country is shared by the judiciary, the U.S. Marshals Service, the General Services Administration, and the Federal Protective Service. And construction or maintenance of courthouses but also be authorized and funded by Congress, with oversight assistance from the General Accounting Office (GAO).

The upshot of this entanglement is that significant changes or improvements to federal courthouses must work their way through multiple layers of bureaucracy before anything gets done.

And so it is here. In 2008, after one significant wave of courthouse construction had been completed, the federal judiciary implemented an Asset Management Process (AMP) to prioritize courthouses most desperately in need of upgrades or new construction. Five years later, the GAO signed off on the process. The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AO) then began the laborious task of assessing the condition of every federal courthouse in the country. By 2020, it had completed assessments of 385 courthouses, or 92 percent, with respect to security, space standards, functionality, the condition of judges’ workspaces, and the general condition of courtrooms and facilities. The judiciary assured the GAO that its assessments were accurate as of the time they were completed.

But the GAO was not satisfied. Asked to review the AO’s courthouse assessments, it concluded that several had become outdated and were therefore over- or under-prioritized for improvements. (For example, two courthouses were destroyed by recent hurricanes, yet their condition was not updated by the AO.) Yesterday the GAO issued a 62-page report outlining its concerns, as well as specific steps that the AO must take to improve the assessment process.

Some might look at the GAO as a necessary watchdog to make sure that the government does not spend money in the wrong places. Others might see this as wasteful bureaucracy run amok. The point here is simply that the business of operating courts is inextricably, and often invisibly to the public, tied to the demands, whims, and queries of many other actors. And that is interdependence in a nutshell.

Not all courthouses are the same

Some are glorious temples to the administration of justice. Others are originally built as school buildings, retrofitted to house courtrooms and judges’ chambers, and must combat mold, crumbling walls, and occasional gunfire. The Tampa Bay Times offers an insightful report on the challenges faced by Florida’s 2d District Court of Appeal in their substandard building, and the resource allocation issues underlying their request for new quarters.

A look inside the construction of a courthouse facility

This article provides a nice peek into the construction of the Ulster County (N.Y.) Family Court, a $10 million project that will eventually house new courtrooms, conference rooms, hearing rooms, office space, and a holding facility. There is nothing particularly unusual about the project, but if offers a glimpse into the community’s vision for the building.

This paragraph in particular struck me:

The new court’s location near the county’s Department of Children and Family Services, Department of Social Services, and the Office for the Aging — all at Development Court — will mean Family Court and the services most used by people who come through the court will be in one place, providing for a better continuum of care, Hein said.

That’s a point that could be easily overlooked, but it makes a big difference to the court’s primary users.