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Congress Limits New Federal Courtrooms

SAN DIEGO (CN) - Construction of a new Federal Courthouse in San Diego is under way after Congress drastically cut back its number of courtrooms. The cutback is part of a new congressional policy that requires senior judges and magistrates to share courtrooms, a policy that's bringing sharp changes to courthouse projects in Texas, Alabama, Georgia and Maryland. The new policy will save $60 million in San Diego alone, one congressman said.

"I just want to observe that we resolved the San Diego courthouse issue, including a hard cap on the number of courtrooms for senior judges and requiring courtroom sharing for senior judges," Congressman James Oberstar said at a hearing late last week.

"That is going to save the government and the taxpayers $60 million compared to the resolution we otherwise would have adopted and which the Senate adopted," added the Minnesota Democrat, who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Oberstar noted with apparent satisfaction that the Senate caved in to the House position on the cutbacks, saying, "The Senate is now conceding to the House position."

The policy limiting the number of courtrooms and requiring sharing by senior judges was adopted in late September, said Mary Kerr, press secretary for the committee.

With San Diego apparently serving as the guinea pig for the new policy, the House committee is marking up four other courthouse resolutions to cap the number of courtrooms in new courthouses in San Antonio, Mobile, Greenbelt and Savannah.

In adopting the new policy, the House committee was unusually direct: "The Administrator of General Services shall not construct more than six courtrooms or 12 chambers in the San Diego, California Courthouse Annex under the authority of this resolution."

Reacting to the cuts, Allison Goddard, president of the Federal Bar Association's San Diego Chapter, said the San Diego court carries a large caseload and courtrooms are a fundamental necessity in administering justice. The Federal Court in San Diego hears a large number of border-related criminal cases.

"We believe the original design reflected the needs of the judges and court personnel in the Southern District," Goddard said. "This is one of the busiest federal courts in the country, and secure and adequate facilities are essential to the administration of justice."

With the cap in place, the San Diego Federal Courthouse is in its grading stage. When it is finished in November 2012, it will rise 16 stories above downtown at a projected cost of about $380 million. One of the selling points in Congress for the new policy was that federal agencies in San Diego are leasing space for their offices.

The resolution authorizing funding for the new building mandates that it provide space for other federal agencies, thus using the space that otherwise would have gone to additional courtrooms, to house federal employees from other agencies.

The 470,000 square-foot building was designed by architecture firm Richard Meier & Partners of Los Angeles and is being built by Hensel Phelps Construction.

"The architectural massing of the new Federal Courthouse combines a slender and elegant 16-story tower that rises above a transparent and translucent building base," said congressional liaison Gene Gibson.

She said the tower is "clad in water-like layers of terra cotta panels, cast-in-place concrete and glass." The traditional lobby mural will be replaced by a ribbon window framing a mural garden that changes with the seasons, according to the design.

The builder has touted the environmental aspects of this project, saying 90 percent of the waste generated by the implosion of Hotel San Diego, which had occupied the site, will be recycled and diverted from landfills.

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