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Courting a Courthouse

More space is needed for L.A.'s crowded federal courts. A panel is recommending a new 19-story structure in the Civic Center, but will Congress find the money for it?


A new U.S. courthouse with a $293-million price tag is being proposed for downtown Los Angeles, headquarters of the largest and busiest federal court district in the nation.

The existing courthouse on Spring Street, a historic landmark built during the Depression, no longer meets the space needs of its judicial tenants, according to a recent study.

And the space crunch is only expected to worsen in the next decade.

The courthouse plan has been moving quietly through the government approval process.

Local and regional officials at the General Services Administration have endorsed it and sent it to their headquarters in Washington for review. After that, the proposal would need approval from the Clinton administration's Office of Management and Budget, and ultimately from Congress, which must appropriate the money.

At Los Angeles City Hall, officials are understandably delighted about the building proposal, which represents a huge federal commitment to the downtown Civic Center. They note, too, that the General Services Administration has a reputation for constructing architecturally acclaimed buildings across the country.

But final approval is by no means certain. The Office of Management and Budget this year has scrubbed 14 other federal courthouse construction projects costing $475 million. The cuts were made to help balance next year's federal budget.

If the budget-cutters change their tune and everything proceeds without a hitch, a new courthouse could be completed between 2005 and 2007, according to the best current forecasts.

"We need a new courthouse very, very badly," said Chief Judge Terry R. Hatter Jr., who has witnessed a surge in cases in the Los Angeles-based Central District of California. The district serves 17 million people in an area stretching from Orange to San Luis Obispo counties.

More than 117,000 bankruptcy cases--a tenth of the nation's total--were filed in the district last year, making it the undisputed bankruptcy capital of the country. Also, 11,000 civil and 1,400 criminal cases were handled here, rivaling the federal district in Manhattan.

The boom is the result of many factors, ranging from natural population growth to more aggressive law enforcement, Hatter said.

As caseloads have grown, so has the number of judges, magistrates, clerks, marshals, secretaries and sundry support staff needed to keep the wheels of justice turning. All of which has resulted in a serious space shortage.

A San Francisco planning firm, Kaplan, McLaughlin and Diaz, was commissioned by the General Services Administration to study the problem.

Agreeing with Hatter, the planners found that the courts were operating with 20% less space than they need, a problem that "greatly impacts their daily operations and the manner in which the judicial system is able to timely address its caseload." The planning firm predicted a 45% shortage in the next decade if nothing is done.

Working with an advisory committee made up of representatives from the General Services Administration, the federal court and the U.S. Marshals Service, the planners considered several solutions aimed not only at solving the current problem but also at satisfying courtroom space needs for the next 30 years.

They studied alternatives ranging from gutting and renovating existing Civic Center buildings to erecting a new courthouse.

In the end, they concluded that the best solution was a new 19-story courthouse on a site two blocks from the Spring Street courthouse.

The proposed site, at Los Angeles and Temple streets, is now occupied by an eight-story government office building that houses the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Internal Revenue Service and the Bankruptcy Court clerk's offices.

That nondescript structure, built in the early 1960s and badly in need of earthquake retrofitting and other renovations, would be torn down and its tenants would be relocated. In its place, the $293-million high-rise courthouse would be erected to provide courtrooms and chambers for all Los Angeles-based District Court judges as well as the court clerk's staff.

When Hatter was appointed to the federal court in 1979, there were 13 federal judges in the district. Today, it has an authorized complement of 27 federal court judges, appointed for life tenures, plus 11 federal judges who have taken senior status, meaning they assume lighter caseloads. There are also 21 Bankruptcy Court judges and 16 Magistrate Court judges who handle arraignments and other matters on behalf of the federal judges.

Most of the bankruptcy judges and 10 federal judges occupy space in the 21-story Edward R. Roybal Federal Building, which is across a courtyard immediately to the east of the proposed site. The magistrate judges conduct arraignments at the Roybal Building, where security is tight, and hold other proceedings at the old courthouse.

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