Federal Courthouse Construction: Judiciary Should Refine Its Methods for Determining Which Projects Are Most Urgent

GAO-22-104034 Published: Jan 05, 2022. Publicly Released: Jan 05, 2022.
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Fast Facts

How does the federal judiciary know when it needs a new courthouse?

Every year, it scores the more than 400 courthouses nationwide on how they meet security, space, building condition, and functionality standards. Then, the cities that have courthouses are ranked by urgency to choose locations for new courthouse construction.

The judiciary ensures accurate scoring at the time of its assessment, but we found that the judiciary's methodology for ranking courthouse needs can affect the results in ways that are not always transparent, objective, or consistent. We recommended ways to refine the process to ensure the judiciary's goals are being met.

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The judiciary created its Asset Management Planning (AMP) process to prioritize construction projects. As part of that process, the judiciary assesses courthouse conditions. The 2020 assessment results showed that security was the largest concern, with 44 percent of courthouses receiving a poor score. Courthouses' adherence to space standards, such as the size or accessibility of courtrooms, had more balanced scores. The physical condition of the judicial spaces performed the best with more than three-fourths of all courthouses receiving ideal to good ratings (see figure).

Judiciary's 2020 Courthouse Assessment Category Scores and Percentages for 385 Federal Courthouses

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By following the AMP process and coordinating with other federal agencies, the judiciary ensured that courthouse assessment scores were accurate at the time they were completed. However, the judiciary did not always update assessment scores, when appropriate, to reflect major changes in courthouses' operating status. For example, one courthouse was destroyed by a hurricane in 2018, and another had a mold problem. Both were required to close. We found that the judiciary did not update these courthouses' assessment scores, an update that would have had an important effect on the urgency ratings—a later part of the AMP process. By updating courthouse assessment scores to reflect major changes in operating status, the judiciary can provide more accurate and reliable information to decision makers.

The judiciary's scoring methodology could amplify or diminish the scores of courthouses and cities in ways that were not always aligned with AMP's goals. For example, the methodology made it more likely that smaller courthouses would receive the worst scores compared to larger, multifaceted courthouses. Also, the judiciary capped certain values within the scoring process in ways that were not always repeatable or consistent due to a lack of documented guidelines for using the caps. This approach could lead to nontransparent and inconsistent results that could affect how projects are prioritized for funding. Absent an analysis of the methodology's effects on the AMP goals, the judiciary cannot have full confidence that the rankings were objective and consistent. This lack of transparency and objectivity could lead the judiciary to inadvertently recommend projects for further study and funding that may not represent the cities with the most urgent space and condition needs.

Why GAO Did This Study

Major federal courthouse construction, expansion, and renovation projects usually cost hundreds of millions of dollars and can be controversial as federal judicial districts and circuits vie for limited funding. By 2020, the judiciary's AMP process had assessed and scored 385 federal courthouses to generate urgency ratings and rankings that allow the judiciary to prioritize courthouse projects and funding.

GAO was asked to review the AMP process. This report assesses: (1) what the judiciary's assessment scores show about the conditions of federal courthouses; (2) the extent to which the AMP process ensures the accuracy of its courthouse assessment scores it produces; and (3) the extent to which the AMP's scoring methodology is meeting AMP goals. GAO reviewed policies and analyzed the judiciary's 2020 facility assessment and urgency data; selected a non-generalizable sample of 10 courthouses based on courthouse assessment scores and urgency ratings; and interviewed officials about the AMP process.

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Recommendations

GAO is making three recommendations to the Judicial Conference of the United States to update assessment scores when appropriate, and ensure that the methodology's effects align to the AMP goals and are transparent to judiciary decision makers. The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts agreed to work with the Judicial Conference to consider ways to better document its decisions and evaluate how its methodologies affect courthouse rankings.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Administrative Office of the United States Courts The Director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts should update assessment scores, as appropriate, to reflect major changes in a courthouse's operating status. (Recommendation 1)
Open
As of December 2022, AOUSC officials stated that they implemented a new documentation process for the Urgency Evaluation result list. We requested information on the new documentation process to include a description on how it works to address when major changes occur in a courthouse's operating status. AOUSC officials stated that they would provide support in early 2023. GAO will review the documentation and will continue to monitor AOUSC's efforts to implement this recommendation.
Administrative Office of the United States Courts The Director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts should evaluate the AMP's scoring methodology's three-part process, to ensure its effects align to the AMP's goals and are made transparent to judiciary decision makers, and make revisions where needed. (Recommendation 2)
Open
As of December 2022, AOUSC officials stated that they begun an analysis of the AMP's scoring methodology's three-part process to ensure its effects align to the AMP's goals and are made transparent to judiciary decision makers. GAO will follow-up with AOUSC in spring 2023 on the progress of their analysis and will continue to monitor AOUSC's efforts to implement this recommendation.
Administrative Office of the United States Courts The Director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts should better document for judiciary decision makers the criteria the judiciary applies for the placement of caps. (Recommendation 3)
Closed – Implemented
Major federal courthouse construction, expansion, and renovation projects cost hundreds of millions of dollars. As such, few projects can be funded at any one time, and the annual selection of courthouse projects can become controversial as federal district courts compete to receive funding. In 2008, the U.S. Judiciary created the Asset Management Planning (AMP) process with its goal to be an objective and consistent system for ensuring a "worst-first" prioritization process for addressing courthouse space needs. The AMP process has four urgency rating components that are comprised of a courthouse's citywide score, the anticipated number of needed judges' chambers, needed courtrooms, and caseloads. The urgency rating and ranking information is the main supporting rationale provided to judiciary's decision makers for their consideration in approving construction projects and funding. In 2022, GAO reported that the scoring methodology sets a cap or limit that is the maximum number or score a city can get for the component for each of the four rating components. Setting caps is an important decision because a cap's placement can make a city's need appear more or less urgent depending on where a cap is positioned for the rating calculation. However, judiciary officials acknowledged that they did not have formal or documented criteria for determining where to set caps and said they set a cap by observing the highest calculated needs and placed a cap where natural breaks in the data began to occur. GAO found that the cap setting process was not repeatable, making the rating calculation and results appear less objective and transparent. Specifically, GAO could not identify a clear basis for why the judiciary placed caps where it did, including any formal criteria to determine if a cap sufficiently achieved the goals for using caps. GAO also found the extent to which the caps met the judiciary's stated purpose of controlling for outliers and protecting small cities varied. For instance, the judiciary placed a cap for projected caseload below the ratings of a few cities that had significantly larger projected caseload increases than the vast majority of cities. Without a consistent, transparent process for placing caps, there was no guarantee that the order in which cities' needs were prioritized were based on a consistent and objective process. This could lead the judiciary to inadvertently recommend courthouses for construction projects that are not actually those with the most urgent needs. Therefore, GAO recommended that the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AOUSC) should better document for judiciary decision makers the criteria the judiciary applies for the placement of caps. In August 2022, GAO confirmed several actions taken by AOUSC to document the criteria for setting caps. AOUSC established an Asset Management Planning Process Handbook that described the urgency evaluation rating methodology and made clear the purpose of setting caps each year. Specifically, the handbook described that natural breaks in data would be used for cap criterion and how outlier values would be addressed as to not skew the overall urgency rankings. To that end, the handbook made clear that locations with values at or above the cap for each criterion would receive "full credit" and all other locations would receive credit in relation to the cap value and a percentage of the urgency evaluation's model weight for that criterion. Within the handbook, AOUSC documented and communicated the criteria to rest of the judiciary's decision makers. The AOUSC's actions make the AMP's process for setting caps more consistent and transparent, which better supports the soundness of the methodology's results.

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