Federal Courthouse Construction:

Better Planning, Oversight, and Courtroom Sharing Needed to Address Future Costs

GAO-10-417: Published: Jun 21, 2010. Publicly Released: Jun 21, 2010.

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The federal judiciary and the General Services Administration (GSA) are in the midst of a multibillion-dollar courthouse construction initiative, which has since faced rising construction costs. As requested, for 33 federal courthouses completed since 2000, GAO examined (1) whether they contain extra space and any costs related to it; (2) how their actual size compares with the congressionally authorized size; (3) how their space based on the judiciary's 10-year estimates of judges compares with the actual number of judges; and (4) whether the level of courtroom sharing supported by the judiciary's data could have changed the amount of space needed in these courthouses. GAO analyzed courthouse planning and use data, visited courthouses, modeled courtroom sharing scenarios, and interviewed judges, GSA officials, and other experts.

The 33 federal courthouses completed since 2000 include 3.56 million square feet of extra space consisting of space that was constructed (1) above the congressionally authorized size, (2) due to overestimating the number of judges the courthouses would have, and (3) without planning for courtroom sharing among judges. Overall, this space represents about 9 average-sized courthouses. The estimated cost to construct this extra space, when adjusted to 2010 dollars, is $835 million, and the annual cost to rent, operate and maintain it is $51 million. Twenty-seven of the 33 courthouses completed since 2000 exceed their congressionally authorized size by a total of 1.7 million square feet. Fifteen exceed their congressionally authorized size by more than 10 percent, and 12 of these 15 also had total project costs that exceeded the estimates provided to congressional committees. However, there is no requirement to notify congressional committees about size overages. A lack of oversight by GSA, including not ensuring its space measurement policies were understood and followed and a lack of focus on building courthouses within the congressionally authorized size, contributed to these size overages. For 23 of 28 courthouses whose space planning occurred at least 10 years ago, the judiciary overestimated the number of judges who would be located in them, causing them to be larger and costlier than necessary. Overall, the judiciary has 119, or approximately 26 percent, fewer judges than the 461 it estimated it would have. This leaves the 23 courthouses with extra courtrooms and chamber suites that, together, total approximately 887,000 square feet of extra space. A variety of factors contributed to the judiciary's overestimates, including inaccurate caseload projections, difficulties in projecting when judges would take senior status, and long-standing difficulties in obtaining new authorizations and filling vacancies. However, the degree to which inaccurate caseload projections contributed to inaccurate judge estimates cannot be measured because the judiciary did not retain the historic caseload projections used in planning the courthouses. Using the judiciary's data, GAO designed a model for courtroom sharing, which shows that there is enough unscheduled time for substantial courtroom sharing. Sharing could have reduced the number of courtrooms needed in courthouses built since 2000 by 126 courtrooms--about 40 percent of the total number--covering about 946,000 square feet of extra space. Some judges GAO consulted raised potential challenges to courtroom sharing, such as uncertainty about courtroom availability, but others indicated they overcame those challenges when necessary, and no trials were postponed. The judiciary has adopted policies for future sharing for senior and magistrate judges, but GAO's analysis shows that additional sharing opportunities are available. For example, GAO's courtroom sharing model shows that there is sufficient unscheduled time for 3 district judges to share 2 courtrooms and 3 senior judges to share 1 courtroom.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Since the early 1990s, the General Services Administration (GSA) and the federal judiciary (judiciary) have undertaken a multibillion-dollar courthouse construction initiative, which has since faced rising construction costs. In 2010, GAO reported that the 33 federal courthouses completed between 2000 and 2010 included 1.7 million square feet of extra space above the congressionally authorized size. GSA lacked sufficient control activities to ensure that the 33 courthouses were constructed within the congressionally authorized gross square footage, initially because it had not established a consistent policy for how to measure gross square footage. GSA established a policy for measuring gross square footage by 2000, but did not ensure that this space measurement policy was understood and followed. GSA also did not demonstrate that it was enforcing this policy because all 6 courthouses completed since 2007 exceed their congressionally authorized size. This lack of oversight contributed to the construction of courthouses that are larger than congressionally authorized. Therefore, GAO recommended that GSA establish sufficient internal control activities to ensure that regional GSA officials understand and follow GSA's space measurement policies throughout the planning and construction of courthouses. These control activities should allow for accurate comparisons of the size of a planned courthouse with the congressionally authorized gross square footage throughout the design and construction process. In 2018, GAO confirmed that GSA provided a Certification of Project Readiness Checklist that must be completed, signed, and received by the Office of Design and Construction before the project readiness is confirmed. The checklist explicitly requires attestation that the project will not exceed authorized size by documenting the gross square feet authorized in the design concept, including a requirement that area computation be completed in a standard way. This checklist increases GSA's control activities and will better ensure that courthouses are constructed within authorized limits.

    Recommendation: In order to improve the planning and oversight for future courthouse construction projects, to increase the efficiency of courtroom usage through courtroom sharing, and to ensure that future courthouses are built within the congressionally authorized gross square footage, the Administrator of GSA should establish sufficient internal control activities to ensure that regional GSA officials understand and follow GSA's space measurement policies throughout the planning and construction of courthouses. These control activities should allow for accurate comparisons of the size of a planned courthouse with the congressionally authorized gross square footage throughout the design and construction process.

    Agency Affected: General Services Administration

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Since the early 1990s, the General Services Administration (GSA) and the federal judiciary (judiciary) have undertaken a multibillion-dollar courthouse construction initiative, which has since faced rising construction costs. In 2010, GAO reported that 27 of 33 federal courthouses completed between 2000 and 2010 included 1.7 million square feet of extra space above the congressionally authorized size. Some courthouses encompassed more courtroom space than planned because during the planning stages, GSA did not take into account the possibility that the design of the courthouse could double the size of each courtroom. Under the Design Guide standards in effect when these courthouses were designed, courtroom ceiling should be at least 16 feet high, while judges' chambers and other court-related spaces did not have ceiling height requirements. However, because federal courthouses have typically been built with judges' chambers on the same floors as the courtrooms, some courthouses have courtrooms on floors designed to hold rooms with 10-foot ceilings, and the ceiling of each courtroom is cut out so that each courtroom takes up two floors. One way GSA met this standard was to have a courtroom encompass two 10-foot floors-referred to as a tenant floor cut. According to GSA policy at the time, GSA counted the extra place effectively doubling the amount of space allocated to the courtroom floor. Judiciary officials said that space planning was done well before they knew if they would need to incorporate additional space for tenant floor cuts in courtrooms. The judiciary's uses its automated space planning tool, AnyCourt, to determine how much court-related space to request for a new courthouse, which adheres to the Design Guide's standard of 2,400 square feet for each courtroom. Although GSA's space measurement policy requires the a courtroom's square footage doubles if it's designed with a tenant floor cut, AnyCourt's planned calculation did not reflect GSA's policy. Without a mechanism to adjust AnyCourt's calculation to reflect GSA's s policy when the design includes tenant floor cuts, GSA may not request sufficient gross square footage to build a courthouse. Therefore, GAO recommended that GSA establish a process by which the planning for space needed per courtroom takes into account GSA's space measurement policy related to tenant floor cuts if a courthouse may be designed with courtrooms that have tenant floor cuts. In May 2018, GAO confirmed that GSA's current National Business Space Assignment Policy now specifies that both floors of a courtroom with a tenant floor cut are assignable to the tenant agency, as though there was a slab between the two floors. With this policy, GSA is in a better position to ensure that the judiciary requests sufficient space for courtrooms that are designed with floors cuts adhere to the congressionally authorized size.

    Recommendation: In order to improve the planning and oversight for future courthouse construction projects, to increase the efficiency of courtroom usage through courtroom sharing, and to ensure that future courthouses are built within the congressionally authorized gross square footage, the Administrator of GSA should, in order to avoid requesting insufficient space for courtrooms based on the AnyCourt model's identification of courtroom space needs, establish a process, in cooperation with the Director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, by which the planning for the space needed per courtroom takes into account GSA's space measurement policy related to tenant floor cuts if a courthouse may be designed with courtrooms that have tenant floor cuts.

    Agency Affected: General Services Administration

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Since the early 1990s, the General Services Administration (GSA) and the federal judiciary (judiciary) have undertaken a multibillion-dollar courthouse construction initiative, which has since faced rising construction costs. In 2010, GAO reported that 15 of the 33 federal courthouses completed between 2000 and 2010 exceed their congressionally authorized size by more than 10 percent, and 12 of these 15 also had total project costs that exceeded the estimates provided to congressional committees. However, there is no requirement to notify congressional committees about size overages. Without such a requirement, GSA did not notify congressional committees when courthouses were more than 10 percent larger than authorized. The construction industry commonly uses 10 percent as a benchmark for the expected variance between the actual cost and the construction estimate. Therefore, GAO recommended that GSA report to congressional authorizing committees when the design of a courthouse exceeds the authorized size by more than 10 percent, including the reasons for the increase in size. In 2018, GAO reviewed GSA documentation confirming that GSA has established a process for notifying the appropriate congressional committees when the square footage of construction projects exceeds by 10 percent or more the maximum identified in the prospectus as authorized. This process will help ensure that GSA builds future courthouses within the congressionally authorized gross square footage.

    Recommendation: In order to improve the planning and oversight for future courthouse construction projects, to increase the efficiency of courtroom usage through courtroom sharing, and to ensure that future courthouses are built within the congressionally authorized gross square footage, the Administrator of GSA should report to congressional authorizing committees when the design of a courthouse exceeds the authorized size by more than 10 percent, including the reasons for the increase in size.

    Agency Affected: General Services Administration

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2010, we found that one of the reasons courthouses were larger and more expensive than necessary was that the judiciary projected that it would have 120 more judges than it actually has at courthouses built since 2000. These inaccurate estimates were caused, in part, by overly optimistic projections of growing caseloads. However, the extent to which inaccurate caseload projections contributed to the inaccurate judge estimates is unknown, because the judiciary had not analyzed and did not retain its historic caseload projection data, which is used in planning courthouses. Without analyzing the accuracy of its caseload estimates, the judiciary could not determine what changes to its planning for 10-year needs would yield more accurate estimates. We recommended that the judiciary retain caseload projections for at least 10 years for use in analyzing their accuracy and incorporate additional factors into the judiciary's 10-year judge estimates, such as past trends in obtaining judgeships. In 2014, we confirmed that the U.S. Judicial Conference, the policy making body of the U.S. federal courts, approved retention of caseload data for 10 years and that the federal judiciary planned to make use of those estimates to improve future estimates. These changes will allow the judiciary to better estimates its future judges and, in turn, request smaller, less expensive courthouses.

    Recommendation: In order to improve the planning and oversight for future courthouse construction projects, to increase the efficiency of courtroom usage through courtroom sharing, and in planning for future space needs, the Director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, on behalf of the Judicial Conference of the United States, should improve the accuracy of its 10-year estimation of judges by retaining caseload projections for at least 10 years for use in analyzing their accuracy and incorporating additional factors into the judiciary's 10-year judge estimates, such as past trends in obtaining judgeships.

    Agency Affected: Administrative Office of the United States Courts

  5. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The judiciary chose not to expand courtroom sharing to federal distict judges.

    Recommendation: In order to improve the planning and oversight for future courthouse construction projects, and to increase the efficiency of courtroom usage through courtroom sharing, the Director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, on behalf of the Judicial Conference of the United States, should expand nationwide courtroom sharing policies to more fully reflect the actual scheduling and use of district courtrooms.

    Agency Affected: Administrative Office of the United States Courts

  6. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The judiciary has indicated that it does not intend to implement this recommendation.

    Recommendation: In order to improve the planning and oversight for future courthouse construction projects, and to increase the efficiency of courtroom usage through courtroom sharing, the Director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, on behalf of the Judicial Conference of the United States should distribute information to judges on positive practices judges have used to overcome challenges to courtroom sharing.

    Agency Affected: Administrative Office of the United States Courts

 

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