Court expansion plans are problematic, report says

The Government Accountability Office told a congressional panel on Wednesday that the federal court system’s one-page, $1.1 billion facilities proposal “does not support the judiciary’s request for courthouse construction projects.”

The watchdog report calls for a moratorium on the judiciary’s five-year capital plan, which the GAO says underestimates project costs and fails to evaluate the proposal under new guidelines.

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The U.S. Judicial Conference, which oversees the courts, objected to the GAO’s recommendation during a of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

Judge Michael A. Ponsor, who handles facilities issues for the judicial branch, said a moratorium would be “wasteful, unfair and dangerous” for districts with projects in the five-year plan.

“I feel like I’m speaking for the people . . . who’ve been waiting sometimes 15 years with courthouses that are falling to bits,” Ponsor said. “The courthouses are clearly needed.”

The General Services Administration, which manages federal properties, also opposed the recommended moratorium. GSA Commissioner Dorothy Robyn argued that the delay could “potentially undermine our ongoing maintenance of the federal inventory and our mission to provide the courts with safe and secure, quality courthouse space.”

According to the GAO, the court system underestimated the pricetag for its capital plan by about $2 billion. It said the judiciary also failed to follow White House and accountability office guidelines for determining the need for new construction.

Some projects have sat on the judiciary’s capital plan for more than 20 years, but the court system adopted a new evaluation process in 2008. Ponsor has resisted calls to apply the new assessment process to all projects on the list, saying previous guidelines were adequate.

The accountability office found that 10 of the 12 listed projects would not qualify for new construction under the court system’s revised standards.

In a heated exchange with Ponsor, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) demanded to know whether the judiciary would subject all projects on the five-year plan to the new process, as required by the House committee.

Ponsor answered: “No, we would prefer not to.”

“You’re in contempt of this committee,” Holmes said.

Ponsor then walked back his previous statement, saying: “I would hope I can persuade you not to require us to do that. If you require us to do that, then I guess we’ll have to do it, but it would be a terrible mistake, in my opinion.”

The judicial conference contends that evaluating its entire capital plan under the new process would duplicate efforts by the GSA, which provides extensive information when it asks Congress to fund the construction projects.

The accountability office in recent years has produced multiple reports criticizing the size and cost of the court system’s construction projects.

The judicial conference has said it needs time to grow into its new facilities, but the accountability office contends that judgeship numbers have consistently fallen short of the projections that have driven construction planning in the past.

The accountability office has recommended that judges share courtrooms, a policy that the judicial conference has implemented for all except its district judges. District judges make up roughly half of the judicial branch’s 2,000 judges.

The GSA said Wednesday that it has a proven record of right-sizing courthouse projects.

Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the House committee, suggested that the judiciary prepare to deal with austerity. “You could administer justice with a piece of plywood and milk crates,” he said. “We’re not telling you how to administer justice, but we need to take our responsibility seriously here in making sure that every prescious taxpayer dollar is spent in the best way.”

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