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First Year of Space-Cutting Initiative Yields Major Successes

Judge D. Brooks Smith

Judge D. Brooks Smith, chair of the Judicial Conference’s Space and Facilities Committee

The federal Judiciary has made major strides in the first year of a five-year campaign to reduce court building space by 3 percent.

The Judicial Conference endorsed the space-reduction goals in September 2013. Since that time, the nation’s 12 regional circuits have submitted plans for meeting the five-year target. Dozens of specific projects are underway, involving appellate, district and bankruptcy courts, and probation and pretrial services offices.

Thirty court library spaces are being scaled back or closed by 2018. Dozens of court offices have been identified for relocation from leased commercial buildings to federally owned space. And seven court facilities without full-time resident judges were identified for downsizing or closure. Under the Judiciary’s five-year space reduction plan, about 870,000 square feet are to be eliminated by September 2018.

“I have nothing but praise for the efforts of courts throughout the country toward achieving our national space reduction goals,” said Judge D. Brooks Smith, chair of the Judicial Conference’s Space and Facilities Committee.  “Sacrifice does not come easily, but that is exactly what the court family is doing in this era of cost-cutting.”

The courts pay about $1 billion every year to the General Services Administration. Cutting that rent bill is the Judiciary’s leading cost-containment objective.  “Each dollar that we save in rent can be used to help retain court staff,” Judge Smith said. “Given the staffing reductions we have suffered in the past few years, this has to be a priority.”

Many of the projects will require upfront money to renovate new spaces and equip them with furniture and technology. But in most cases, the rent savings will pay back the start-up investment within five years.

A $29 million national fund, part of the Judiciary’s Congressional appropriation for FY 2014, is paying for many planning and other start-up costs, and 76 projects have been submitted as candidates for that fund. At present, $23.4 million remains unspent, and courts are being made aware that funding is available to support space-reduction projects.

In addition, courts increasingly are tapping into a separate incentive fund that gives them a one-time lump sum as encouragement to vacate unneeded space. In FY 2014, courts received a total of $6 million in one-time payments, in exchange for giving up space in 81 court units. That is more than triple the $1.7 million awarded by the same program in the previous year.

The following are examples of space and cost-saving projects that have been started or been approved by regional circuit judicial councils.


With digital information more the norm, courts greatly stepped up efforts to reduce library space once dedicated to law books and periodicals. Five of the Judiciary's satellite library spaces are being planned for closure, and 25 others are to be scaled back, with the space being converted to other court functions.

In the Third Circuit, which includes Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and the U.S. Virgin Islands, court officials expect to cut library space by 21,500 feet—one third of the circuit’s total reduction goal. In Philadelphia, downsizing the circuit library will enable the appellate staff attorney’s office to move back into the federal courthouse. Total annual rent savings for the circuit will be nearly $700,000.

Probation and Pretrial Services Offices

Increasingly, probation and pretrial services officers supervise offenders in the community, and some workspaces are being redesigned to create more space-efficient drop-in areas for staff instead of permanent dedicated offices, while also enhancing security.

A pilot project in Chicago, being conducted jointly by the courts and the General Services Administration, is projected to cut space by 55 percent and save $1.4 million in annual rent when the probation office relocates to a federal building in 2015. Similar projects are expected to save more than $300,000 a year in Puerto Rico and at least that much in Phoenix.

Bankruptcy Courts

A bankruptcy court in Miami has completed a move from a separate courthouse into available space in a nearby District Court building, saving $900,000 a year in rent and security costs. A similar plan has been approved for Albuquerque, New Mexico, which will save about $700,000 annually. Other planned bankruptcy court moves include San Francisco; Buffalo; and Anniston, Alabama.

In addition to the Bankruptcy Court move, the Southern District of Florida is closing an unneeded District Court jury assembly room, saving $300,000 annually. The two Miami space-reduction projects will cut annual rent and security costs by a total of $1.2 million.

District and Appellate Courts

In Philadelphia, chambers of visiting U.S. Court of Appeals judges were downsized and reconfigured into a more space-efficient open floor plan, as was a district judge’s chambers in Rochester, New York. Appellate judges’ chambers are being released to the GSA in Central Islip, New York, San Antonio, and Austin, Texas.

In Dallas, Houston, and Boise, Idaho, the district courts will be part of comprehensive space reductions that also will involve the bankruptcy courts and probation and pretrial services offices. The projects are expected to result in an overall significant space reduction.

Non-Resident Court Facilities

In September, the Judicial Conference approved the closure of a courtroom facility in North Platte, Nebraska, that has no full-time resident judge. In addition, unoccupied courtrooms will be closed in Tennessee, Alaska, Florida and Alabama, although some other court operations, such as a probation office, will remain open in some of those non-resident facilities. The new space reductions continue a process that began in FY 2012 and 2013, when 10 additional non-resident courthouses were scheduled for closure.

Judiciary leaders say that in time, as the initial transition costs are paid off, the initiative will lead to significant, permanent savings in rent and security costs.

“This initiative involves several significant partnerships – between circuits and districts, the AO, courts and circuits, and GSA and the Judiciary,” said Melanie Gilbert, Chief of the AO’s Facilities and Security Office and primary staff to the Space and Facilities Committee.  “Working together and creatively, we believe millions of dollars in rent can be saved and used for other mission-critical work in the Third Branch.”

Related Topics: Appellate Courts, Bankruptcy Courts, Cost Containment, Courthouses, District Courts, Probation and Pretrial Services