Courts of Appeals Help Lead Space Reduction Push
The 12 regional Courts of Appeals are playing an outsized role in helping the federal Judiciary to achieve its five-year goal for reducing courthouse and office space.
The appellate courts account for just 11 percent of Judiciary property, but make up nearly 25 percent of all space reduction that has been completed or is underway. Leading the way have been projects shrinking space for circuit libraries, staff attorney offices, and chambers for out-of-town judges who travel to their circuit headquarters when they hear cases.
“The courts have benefited from the constant march of technology,” said Jesse Cannon, Assistant Circuit Executive for space and facilities for the Fifth Circuit, which includes Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi. “More and more tasks are done by technology … and more employees are able to work from remote locations.”
The Judiciary is cutting back on court space to save taxpayers’ money, and to make work areas more efficient by leveraging technology, with a target of reducing overall space 3 percent by September 2018. About $1.1 billion of the Judiciary’s $7.5 billion budget is dedicated to paying rent to the General Service Administration for courthouses and support offices.
Courts of appeals, which primarily consider appeals of lower court decisions and petitions for review of administrative agency rulings, operate differently in key respects from district courts.
Instead of individual courtrooms for trials, a smaller number of courtrooms host hearings by panels of judges. Moreover, most appeals are resolved without any courtroom activity, and many appellate judges only travel to their primary courthouse when scheduled to hear oral arguments.
But the process of identifying space that is underused, or can be used more efficiently, is largely similar, court planners say. “The work is the same, as far as releasing space,” said Derek Pedersen, Assistant Circuit Executive for space and facilities for the Third Circuit, which includes Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Two different projects in the Third Circuit have yielded big savings, while also creating exciting new work environments.
In the James A. Byrne U.S. Courthouse in Philadelphia, the circuit is reducing its library, which relies increasingly on digital storage and less on traditional books, by nearly 50 percent, creating space to house 35 staff attorneys and support staff. The project will save over 10,500 square feet, and about $370,000 in annual rent costs.
This video explains how an innovative design of judges’ offices cut costs for the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia.
As an added benefit, the project brought together the circuit’s chief research assistants, the librarians, with the court’s staff attorneys, who depend heavily on legal research to help judges assess which cases to hear. Both staffs share tech-enhanced training and conference areas that better integrate personal devices.
“This consolidation not only reduces our footprint, but it also creates an incredibly vibrant space in which work supporting the core mission of the Judiciary is carried out,” said Margaret Wiegand, Circuit Executive for the Third Circuit.
The Third Circuit also avoided an expansion that would have cost about $4.5 million for construction and $250,000 in annual rent, by modernizing its space for out-of-town appellate judges hearing cases in Philadelphia. By converting three traditional judges’ chambers into open-format drop-in suites, the court created temporary work areas for as many as 12 visiting non-resident judges and their staff.
“By shrinking the space for each judge who was a non-resident judge, and who only comes in periodically, we’ve been able to free up space for new judges, active service judges who come on board,” said Judge D. Brooks Smith, Chief Judge of the Third Circuit and former chair of the Judiciary’s Space and Facilities Committee.
In the Fifth Circuit, visions of cutting courthouse space date back to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, when court staff based in New Orleans were forced to operate from as far away as Houston. The staff attorneys’ office continued to telework extensively after the storm crisis passed. In 2013, the office pared its book collections and conference and training spaces, releasing nearly 10,000 square feet to GSA.
In Austin, Texas, the Fifth Circuit released more than 18,000 square feet from the Homer Thornberry Judicial Building, including a courtroom, chambers, clerk’s office and satellite library space), saving nearly $603,000 in annual rent.
“We had excess chambers for appeals judges, and a satellite library that hadn’t been staffed in recent years,” Cannon said. “GSA wanted to move an agency into the Thornberry Building, and that was a great motivator for them to process the space reduction quickly. We got it off our rent rolls in about two weeks.”
In Cincinnati, the Sixth Circuit, which includes Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee, saved 14,709 square feet, and $329,000 in annual rent, through an imaginative combination of the circuit library and its clerk’s space. With the court requiring about one-tenth of the space for paper storage because of electronic filing, a high-density file-storage area was repurposed to house the library’s book collections without any structural enhancements.
“The Sixth Circuit went electronic in 2008, we weren’t getting paper filings anymore,” said Barbara Wieliczka, Assistant Circuit Executive for space and facilities. “We had all these electronic moving shelves, and they were virtually empty.”
As in the Third Circuit, putting previously separated work teams in adjoining spaces had additional payoffs.
“The move has made us feel like co-workers with the clerk’s office. It’s been a real boon to us,” said Owen Smith, Sixth Circuit Librarian. “We’ve moved from walled offices into an open environment. Everyone is on board, and it’s increasing collaboration.”
Space reductions have occurred in all 12 regional circuit courts of appeals. Examples include the following:
Circuit library projects enabled reductions in the First Circuit (Boston); Eighth Circuit (Little Rock); Tenth Circuit (Wichita); and Eleventh Circuit (Miami). The Second Circuit will save nearly 15,000 square feet and $600,000 in annual rent by releasing two judges’ chambers and some library space, in conjunction with a district court space reduction project in Central Islip, NY, and the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia reduced space for the Clerk’s office, judges’ chambers and the circuit library, saving 8,300 square feet and $482,000 in annual rent.
Nationally, about 194,000 square feet have been removed from the Judiciary rent bill, and an additional 174,000 feet will be released to GSA once remaining projects are completed. A total of 118 projects are completed, in progress, or in the planning stage. Of those, 50 involve libraries, 33 involve courtrooms or chambers and 22 involve clerk’s space. Staff attorneys’ offices account for seven projects, and circuit executives’ space accounts for six.
“The entire federal judicial family has faced the challenge of space reduction together,” said Judge Smith, of the Third Circuit. “A great deal of innovation has come from local courts, and the courts of appeals have a played a critical role in meeting the Judiciary’s national space reduction goals.”