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October 2010

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


Participants in Judicial Process Entitled to Safe Facility, Adequate Space

The effective administration of justice is threatened when participants in the judicial process must use inadequate, deteriorating, and unsafe courtrooms, representatives of the federal Judiciary told Congress last month. 

Judge Michael A. Ponsor (D. Mass.)

Judge Michael A. Ponsor (D. Mass.) testified that interruptions in the federal courthouse construction and renovation program have a “devastating impact” on the Judiciary’s ability to provide access to justice.

“The lack of adequate and appropriate courtroom space adversely impacts the Judiciary’s ability to provide access to justice, to effectively administer justice, and to ensure the safety and security of all participants in the judicial process,” Judge Michael A. Ponsor (D. Mass.), chair of the Judicial Conference Committee on Space and Facilities, told the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts and Competition Policy.

Subcommittee chair Hank Johnson (D-GA) and ranking minority member Howard Coble (R-NC) weighed in on the need for courthouses.

“I emphasize that the three branches [of government] are intended to be co-equal, separate branches. This balance of power is disrupted when the legislative branch intrudes on how the judicial branch conducts its business, such as dictating how much courtroom sharing there must be or how to calculate the number of judges needed to meet caseload demands,” said Johnson.  He announced that he is planning to visit several courthouses “that the Judiciary believes to be in desperate need of funding.” Johnson invited his fellow committee members on both the House Judiciary Committee and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management to join him.

Chief Judge Robert J. Conrad

Chief Judge Robert J. Conrad described the security and space deficiencies in his Charlotte, North Carolina courthouse.

Coble prefaced his remarks by saying he is a long-time advocate of less spending and lower taxes and that “nobody gets a blank check.” He added, however, that the Administrative Office “correctly notes, in my opinion, that it is difficult to predict the Judiciary’s courthouse needs when the size of the Judiciary is a function of congressional action or inaction. . . The Judiciary also maintains that the whole point of our courts is to dispense justice as expeditiously and as fairly as possible. How does,“ he asked, “a one-size-fits-all courtroom sharing plan further justice? How does it promote the quick resolution of legal disputes?”

Also testifying at the hearing were Mark Goldstein from the Government Accountability Office; Judith Resnik; the Arthur Liman Professor of Law, Yale Law School; and the General Services Administration’s Commissioner of Public Buildings, Robert A. Peck, who told the subcommittee “the courthouses GSA constructs are economic, sound, and prestigious, worthy of the American people they represent for years to come.”

Subcommittee chair Hank Johnson (D-GA)

Subcommittee chair Hank Johnson (D-GA) has expressed interest in visiting several federal courthouses.

“Decisions involving whether a new courthouse needs to be built, what the design of that courthouse should include, and how many courtrooms need to be provided must take into account the dynamic and unique nature of the judicial process,” Ponsor said. “These decisions are not ones that lend themselves to an assembly line approach to justice where judges and litigants are interchangeable.”

The planning involved in building courthouses with sufficient space to house judges and staff only can be based on the best information that exists during the planning period, Ponsor told the subcommittee.

“In determining what the Judiciary’s future space needs are, we must plan for adequate space to avoid building a courthouse that is too small to move into as soon as it is completed, and we must also plan for growth, including taking into account expected new judgeships,” he said.

“These decisions are not ones that lend themselves to an assembly line approach to justice where judges and litigants are interchangeable.”

—Judge Michael A. Ponsor (D. Mass.)

Chief Judge Robert J. Conrad, Jr., (W.D. NC) testified on the impact of too few courtrooms in his Charlotte, North Carolina, courthouse. The district has been on the Judiciary’s Five-Year Courthouse Project Plan for a new courthouse for almost 20 years, with construction set back by moratoriums and delays in funding. Given docket demands, the growth in the number of judges, and the seriousness and complexity of cases, the present courthouse now is out of space with serious consequences for security and for the judicial process.

“All of the participants in the judicial process are human beings—not widgets on a conveyor belt—who are entitled to gather in a dignified manner in a safe facility with adequate and appropriate space,” Conrad said.

Instead, he described a courthouse designed in 1915 with postal needs in mind, rather than modern court security—where he has walked to chambers alongside an offender he had just sentenced to 20 years, and where he routinely encounters prisoners on the elevator. Numerous confrontations occur between families of defendants, attorneys and law-enforcement agents who meet in the corridors and restrooms.

Because the courthouse lacks a sufficient number of courtrooms, they are frequently “double scheduled,” and the subsequent rescheduling of proceedings is inefficient and costly for the parties. According to Conrad, when criminal trials must be held in the smaller magistrate judge courtroom, jurors, parties, and counsel have difficulty seeing each other, victims and other witnesses testify within a few feet of criminal defendants, and defendants testify within arm’s reach of the judge.

Ponsor told the subcommittee that interruptions in the courthouse construction and renovation program “will have a devastating impact on the Judiciary’s ability to provide access to justice and ensure its effective administration.” The courthouses most urgently in need of replacement are on the Judiciary’s Five-Year Courthouse Project Plan, and they are on the list as a result of the application of the Judiciary’s long-range facilities planning policies.

“These policies employ objective criteria to determine which courthouses have the most dire space needs and which courthouses have the most serious security deficiencies,” said Ponsor, who also detailed the steps the Judiciary has taken to implement courtroom sharing policies.

“The courthouse renovation and construction program exists to ensure the effective and efficient delivery of justice,” Ponsor said.