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Conference Supports Shift in Responsibility for Courthouses At its biannual meeting this month, the Judicial Conference affirmed its continued support for legislation that would let the Judiciary assume responsibility from the General Services Administration (GSA) for the management, operation, repair, leasing and construction of federal courthouses. The Conference vote was sparked by a committee report noting that in recent years “courthouse funding has fluctuated, frustrations with the dependent relationship with GSA have increased, and rental costs have grown to over $920 million in 2005.” That dollar figure represents about 20 percent of the Judiciary’s operating budget. Most executive branch agencies pay less than 1 percent of their budget for rent.

The Conference first approved asking Congress to remove real property authority for the courts from GSA in 1989, but interest in such legislation declined until the late 1990s.Voting on a recommendation from its Space and Facilities Committee, the Conference re-affirmed its earlier position, and left “the timing of seeking and implementing such authority” to its Executive Committee, in consultation with the Space and Facilities and Budget Committees. The committee report accompanying the recommendation said the proposed shift would allow the Judiciary to assume responsibility for 40 million square feet of buildings. “The Judiciary could take over responsibility for new courthouse construction for $300 million per

year, repairs and alterations for $150 million per year, as well as all operating and leased space rental costs,” the report said. The plan is expected to result in significant savings over what the Judiciary currently pays GSA for rent. In related action, the Conference approved, in concept, establishment of an annual budget cap for space rental costs. Those caps would be determined by its Judicial Conference Budget Committee, in consultation with the Conference Committee on Space and Facilities. A Budget Committee report that accompanied its recommendation said the budget rent cap would cover courthouse construction, minor alteration projects, and additional space acquisitions.

Rent continued from page 1 the Judiciary Rent Reform Act. The bills have minor differences but are similar on the fundamental point of relieving the courts of the burden of paying GSA “commercially equivalent” rent. S. 2292, co-sponsored by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT), John Cornyn (R-TX), Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), would prohibit the GSA from collecting from the Judiciary rent that involves the recovery of any prior capital expenditure. It would also bar GSA from collecting for any commercially equivalent rent charge that GSA does not itself incur, such as real estate taxes on federally-owned buildings. A means for repayment by the judicial branch of the cost of future repair and alteration projects performed by GSA would be agreed upon by the Administrative Office and the GSA. “The Judiciary paid $926 million to GSA in fiscal year 2005,” said

Specter, “but GSA’s actual cost of providing space to the Judiciary was only $426 million, a difference of $500 million.” In his 2005 Year End Report on the Federal Judiciary, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. blamed escalating rents and across-the-board cuts imposed during fiscal years 2004 and 2005 for a reduction of approximately 1,500 judicial branch employees as of mid-December when compared to October 2003. Although the FY 2006 appropriation provides the Judiciary an increase over FY 2005, Roberts said, “the Judiciary must still find a longterm solution to the problem of everincreasing rent payments that drain resources needed for the courts to fulfill their vital mission.” In a Senate floor statement the day after Specter introduced S. 2292, Leahy referred to a May 2005 letter sent by 11 Judiciary Committee senators to GSA asking it to exempt the judicial branch from all rental payments except those required to

operate and maintain federal court buildings and related costs. “GSA’s response,” Leahy said, “has not been adequate. As set forth in that letter, the excessive rent paid by the Judiciary will exacerbate severe personnel shortages by forcing more cuts and could also have impacts on courthouse security. The rent relief provided in this bill will help ensure that the Judiciary continues to have the tools it needs to carry out its unique and vital function.” In support of S. 2292, Cornyn said in a Senate floor statement he believes the current budgetary problems caused by the Judiciary’s rental payments, constitute a near crisis in the federal Judiciary. “I believe that the courts are doing everything they possibly can to contain their costs without adversely affecting the administration of justice,” he said.

2 The Third Branch


March 2006

2006-03 Mar  

Newsletter of the U.S. Courts