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Federal Courthouse

by Gerald Thacker
Courts Consultant

Last updated: 04-21-2011

Overview

Article III of the Constitution establishes the Judiciary as one of the three independent branches of the Federal government, and provides for a Supreme Court and whatever other federal courts Congress considers necessary. Since the Federal Court system was first defined by Congress in 1789, Congress has divided the country into 94 federal judicial districts, each with its own U.S. District Court (USDC). The USDCs are the federal trial courts, where cases are tried, witnesses testify, and juries serve. Even as the system evolved, the number of federal judges remains relatively small. There are currently about 650 authorized USDC judgeships, and approximately 1,200 senior district, magistrate, and bankruptcy judges. Most districts have more than one facility where court is held. Typically, one to five judges are located in small- to medium-sized court facilities; however, in several large metropolitan areas, as many as 50 to 75 judges are located in a single facility. Generally, one trial courtroom is required for each district judgeship.

Photo of Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse-Portland, OR

Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse—Portland, OR
(Courtesy of Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates, BOORA Architects, GSA)

Congress has grouped the 94 USDCs into 12 regional circuits, and established within each circuit a single U.S. Court of Appeals (USCA); there is also a Federal Circuit court with limited jurisdiction in Washington, DC. Litigants who lose in the USDC may appeal their case to the USCA, which reviews cases usually in panels of three judges and without juries, to see whether the trial judge applied the law correctly. The USCA is the final stop for most litigation in the federal system. There are currently about 170 USCA judges authorized for the 12 regional circuits. Most circuit courts hold court only in one or two cities within the circuit, although circuit judges might have offices elsewhere in the circuit. Therefore, most federal court facilities do not contain USCA judges or courtrooms.

As the preeminent symbol of federal authority in local communities, a federal courthouse must express solemnity, stability, integrity, rigor, and fairness. The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA), which is part of the Executive Branch, is the federal agency responsible for federal court design, construction, and maintenance. The need for major renovation or new courthouse construction is identified by the Judicial Conference of the United States in a five-year plan of requirements, updated and approved each year. The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AOUSC) serves as staff to the Federal judiciary. Located in Washington D.C., the AOUSC performs a wide range of administrative duties to assist the operation of the federal courts, and is the primary liaison with GSA and the U.S. Marshals Service, a unit of the Executive branch, which provides judicial security.

Building Attributes

In addition to the traditional life-safety and health concerns common to all buildings, federal courthouse facilities must adhere to guidelines for their aesthetics, security, adjacency and circulation, barrier-free access, mechanical/electrical systems, automation, acoustics, interior finishes, and signage.

A. Types of Spaces

Courtroom Spaces

Public Courtroom Support Spaces

  • Convenience Store, Kiosk, or Vending Machines
  • Bookstore
  • Lobby: Central location for building directory, schedules, and general information
  • Common Space: Informal, multi-purpose recreation and social gathering space
  • Cafeteria or Dining Hall
  • Restrooms

Restricted/Secure Courtroom Support Spaces

  • Judicial Chamber: Includes judge's offices and circulation
  • Enhanced Office: Includes ancillary offices, jury facilities, and other spaces attached to courtrooms such as the Judge's Conference Room, Judge's Robing Room, News Media Room, Service Unit, Private Toilet, and Equipment Storage
  • Detention Cell: Maximum security spaces controlled by the USMS

Administrative Support Spaces

Operation and Maintenance Spaces

B. Important Design Considerations

Aesthetics

Reflect the dignity, enterprise, vigor, and stability of the federal government in accordance with the Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture.

  • To this end, a courthouse must express solemnity, stability, integrity, rigor, and fairness of the American judicial process.
  • The facility must also contribute positively to the architectural fabric of the local community.

Security

Be planned with security as an integral and crucial design consideration.

  • Since security planning is a basic and critical part of courthouse design, it must be factored in at the beginning of the design process and carefully integrated with other building system controls, such as for fire-safety and HVAC.
  • Courthouse security is complex in that court components and circulation patterns require varying degrees of security.
  • Optimal courthouse security is a fine balance between architectural solutions; allocation of security personnel; and installation of security systems and equipment.

Adjacency and Circulation

Define three separate circulation zones for public, restricted, and secure movement.

  • Public circulation requires a single controlled entry, but allows free movement within the public areas of the building.
  • Restricted circulation has a controlled interior entry and is limited to judges, court personnel, and official visitors.
  • Secure circulation is intended for prisoners and is controlled by the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS).

Barrier-Free Access

Conform to the barrier-free standards set forth in the Americans with Disabilities Act Accessibility Guidelines (ADAAG).

  • All public areas in federal court facilities must be accessible when newly constructed or renovated.
  • Within the courtroom, the witness stand, jury box, and well of the court must be accessible, and the judge's bench and clerk's station must be adaptable when newly constructed or renovated.

Mechanical/Electrical Systems

Possess flexible, multi-zoned mechanical equipment with state-of-the-art controls and energy efficiency features.

  • All court and judiciary-related offices must have individual HVAC controls, monitored from a central location.
  • To control noise during all modes of operation, the systems must be provided with one or more of the following: sound traps and acoustical lining in duct work, low-velocity, low-static-pressure fan systems, and/or special low-noise diffusers.
  • Electrical design should anticipate future requirements for video and audio systems; electric data processing, retrieval, and display; electronic security systems; and new generations of sophisticated office equipment.

Automation

Anticipate court reporting and court computer services and be adaptable to change as automation technology evolves.

  • The federal judiciary is committed to automating various court functions, concentrating on the following: automated data-processing system servers, electronic evidence display in the courtroom, courtroom-based personal computers, data communications networks, and satellite video broadcasts.

Acoustics

Provide for speech intelligibility and privacy.

  • Speech intelligibility is a measure of the ability of a listener in the room to understand what is being said. Privacy is the measure of limiting speech intelligibility to the intended listener. Spaces in a courthouse are designed to provide one of four levels of acoustical privacy: inaudible, confidential, normal, and minimal.

Interior Finishes

Finish with durable materials that reflect the dignity of the judicial system and the seriousness of judicial proceedings and:

  • The interior architecture of public spaces in the courthouse should exhibit this dignity and seriousness.
  • A limited palette of finishes that responds to construction cost limitations, optimizes life-cycle performance, and satisfies functional requirements should be selected for each project.

Signage

Direct users clearly and efficiently to desired destinations.

  • Signs significantly impact the functional and aesthetic quality of a court facility. The specific strategy for a building's signs must be determined early in the facility design process.

C. Example Design and Construction Criteria

For GSA, the unit costs for this building type are based on the construction quality and design features in the following table (PDF 883 KB, 35 pgs). This information is based on GSA's benchmark interpretation and could be different for other owners.

Emerging Issues

In recent years, the federal judicial system has experienced facilities-related challenges caused by heightened and changing security needs (such as bio-terrorism); automation of legal processes (especially increasing reliance on electronically filed records and the use of automation in the courtroom); and significant caseload increases. Thus, the need for flexibility and innovation in designs to meet these challenges now and in the future are critical design considerations. Successful courthouse designs will require defining and addressing these issues, and integrating all the necessary disciplines to address them throughout the design and construction process.

Relevant Codes and Standards

The single most targeted resource for the planning and design of federal court facilities is the U.S. Courts Design Guide, now in its fourth edition (1997). The Guide was initially developed in a cooperative effort between the Federal judiciary and a team of experts in space planning, security, acoustics, mechanical/electrical systems, and automation. The U.S. Courts Design Guide complements the GSA facilities standards handbooks. It is intended to serve as a planning tool for federal judges and other personnel involved in the design of a federal court facility and to provide relevant information for the General Services Administration (GSA) and an architecture/engineering (A/E) team to plan, program, and design a functional, aesthetically-appropriate, and cost-effective court facility.

Major Resources

WBDG

Space Types

Courthouse: Enhanced Office, Courthouse: Judicial Chamber, Hearing Room

Design Objectives

Accessible—Provide Equal Access and Flexibility, Aesthetics—Understanding the Language and Elements of Design, Functional / Operational—Account for Functional Needs, Functional / Operational—Ensure Appropriate Product/Systems Integration, Productive—Assure Reliable Systems and Spaces, Productive—Provide Comfortable Environments, Secure / Safe—Ensure Occupant Safety and Health

Project Management

Delivery Teams—Select Appropriate Design Professionals, Building Commissioning, Project Planning, Delivery and Controls

Publications

Others

Points of Contact

  • Robert Andrukonis, Director, GSA Center for Courthouse Programs. Phone: (202) 501-1517.
  • Ross Eisenman, Assistant Director, Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts—Responsible for facilities. Phone: (202) 502-1200.
  • Gerald Thacker, Courts Consultant. Phone: (703) 599-6038.