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Conference Supports Shift in Responsibility for Courthouses

The Judicial Conference of the United States today affirmed its continued support for legislation that would let the Judiciary assume responsibility from the General Services Administration (GSA) for the management, operation, repair, leasing, and construction of federal courthouses.

The Conference vote was sparked by a committee report noting that in recent years "courthouse funding has fluctuated, frustrations with the dependent relationship with GSA have increased, and rental costs have grown to over $920 million in 2005." That dollar figure represents about 20 percent of the Judiciary's operating budget. Most executive branch agencies pay less than 1 percent of their budgets for rent.

The Conference first approved asking Congress to remove real property authority for the courts from GSA in 1989, but interest in such legislation declined until the late 1990s.Voting on a recommendation from its Space and Facilities Committee, the Conference re-affirmed its earlier position, and left "the timing of seeking and implementing such authority" to its Executive Committee, in consultation with the Space and Facilities and Budget Committees.

The committee report accompanying the recommendation said the proposed shift would allow the judiciary to assume responsibility for 40 million square feet of buildings.

"The judiciary could take over responsibility for new courthouse construction for $300 million per year, repairs and alterations for $150 million per year, as well as all operating and leased space rental costs," the report said. The plan is expected to result in significant savings over what the judiciary currently pays GSA for rent.

In related action, the Conference approved, in concept, establishment of an annual budget cap for space rental costs. Those caps would be determined by its Budget Committee, in consultation with the Space and Facilities Committee.

A Budget Committee report that accompanied its recommendation said the budget rent cap would cover courthouse construction, minor alteration projects, and additional space acquisitions.

In other action, the Conference also approved four security-related recommendations. It voted to:

  • Authorize the placement of security screening equipment and contract security guards at leased facilities housing federal probation and pretrial services offices. About 50 such offices nationwide are in leased space, not federal courthouses.
  • Urge the U.S. Marshals Service to provide more frequent training for deputy marshals and judicial security inspectors responsible for security surveys of judges' homes, and more training in how to provide an effective security detail.
  • Encourage each newly appointed federal judge to complete a Judicial Personnel Profile and to periodically update the information as requested by the Marshals Service, and request that the Marshals Service ensure the security of such information.
  • Urge the U.S. Bureau of Prisons to adopt a policy that requires screening, but not reading, of all outgoing mail to judges and courts from inmates incarcerated in a U.S. penitentiary or other high-security federal correctional institution.

In other business, the Conference:

  • Adopted a resolution recognizing the 20-year tenure of Leonidas Ralph Mecham and his "visionary leadership, deep devotion to the independence and integrity of the federal judiciary, and his unflagging spirit and determination." Mecham intends to retire as Director of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, after serving as head of the agency longer than any previous director.

The Judicial Conference of the United States is the principal policy-making body for the federal court system. The Chief Justice serves as the presiding officer of the Conference, which is comprised of the chief judges of the 13 courts of appeals, a district judge from each of the 12 geographical circuits, and the chief judge of the Court of International Trade. The Conference meets twice a year to consider administrative and policy issues affecting the court system, and to make recommendations to Congress concerning legislation involving the Judicial Branch. A list of the Conference members is attached.

Related Topics: Judicial Conference of the United States, Legislation