Courting a Courthouse

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

Security would be further enhanced under the proposal because the new courthouse would be linked by enclosed passageways to the Roybal Building, which already is connected via tunnel to the Metropolitan Detention Center, where federal prisoners are housed.

If the courthouse is built as proposed, U.S. marshals would be able to move prisoners from the jail facility to any courtroom without leaving the complex.

"It would be a tremendous improvement," said Charlie Almanza, deputy chief of the U.S. Marshals Service in Los Angeles. "We're very pleased with the concept."

The landmark Spring Street courthouse, a massive white structure whose entrance is framed by four Doric columns, was built during the late 1930s as a WPA project and is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

It would continue to be used. Much of the office space in the old courthouse is occupied by the staffs of the U.S. attorney and the federal public defender. Other federal employees would fill the space vacated by the judges and the court clerk's staff.

But the courthouse construction proposal still has some high hurdles to clear.

At this point, local and regional General Services Administration officials have endorsed the plan. Agency officials in Washington must give their blessings before it becomes an officially designated project. A decision is not expected from Washington until early next year.

If the agency approves, the proposal will go to the Office of Management and Budget for inclusion in the proposed budget for fiscal year 2000. Given the nationwide backlog of courthouse construction projects, there is likely to be lots of behind-the-scenes lobbying for making it to the head of the list.

Hatter said he's counting on strong support from the California congressional delegation.

In addition to the $293 million needed to build the courthouse, the planning study said nearly $20 million is needed to remodel the Roybal Building to accommodate the magistrates and bankruptcy judges, and $65 million would be required to relocate the INS, the IRS and other agencies from the federal building targeted for demolition.

At City Hall, the proposal has been greeted with enthusiasm. "We couldn't be more gratified at their decision to stay in Los Angeles," said Dan Rosenfeld, manager of the city's real estate assets and a member of the Civic Center Authority, an advisory panel on Civic Center redevelopment issues.

Early in the planning process, he said, there was some talk about decentralizing the federal court, which covers a seven-county area with 17 million people.

The district has already established regional courts in Santa Ana and Riverside.

The proposal to build in downtown Los Angeles, he said, is the most ambitious of more than 50 government and private building projects underway or under consideration for the Civic Center.

Rosenfeld also expressed confidence that a new federal courthouse would be an architectural success. In recent years, he said, the General Services Administration has constructed magnificent federal buildings in major cities across the country under its Excellence in Architecture program.

"The federal government is doing a wonderful thing here," he said.

If everything proceeds without a hitch, a new courthouse could be completed between 2005 and 2007, according to the best current forecasts.

Not only is this district the undisputed bankruptcy capital of the country, but 11,000 civil and 1,400 criminal cases were handled here last year, rivaling the federal district in Manhattan.

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Coping with Increased Caseload

Confronting a burgeoning caseload and serving a district of six counties and 17 million people, the head of the Los Angeles-based Central District of California has made securing a new courthouse a top priority. "We need a new courthouse very, very badly," says Chief Judge Terry R. Hatter Jr. As caseloads have grown, so have the number of judges, magistrates, clerks, marshals and support staff. Existing federal buildings in downtown Los Angeles cannot adequatel handle the federal courts quartered here, says a study commissioned by the General Services Administration. The study calls for construction of a 19-story courthouse two blocks from the existing Spring Street building.

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1. Current U.S. courthouse.

2. Proposed courthouse at site currently occupied by office building.

3. Metropolitan Detention Center

4. Roybal Federal Building

5. Los Angeles County Criminal Courts Building

6. Los Angeles City Hall

7. City Hall East Annex

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Nation's Bankruptcy Capital

Bankruptcies filed in the Los Angeles district have skyrocketed, one factor in the growing federal court caseload.

In thousands

80: 20,184

97: 117,318

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New Cases Filed in 1997 in U.S. District Court

A wide range of criminal and civil cases were filed last year in U.S. District Court in the district that serves Los Angeles and five other Southern California counties.

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Criminal Cases

Civil Rights: 3

Money Laundering: 13

Bankruptcy Fraud: 20

Illict Weapons: 47

Gun Used During Violent Crimes: 51

Stolen Mail: 54

Counterfeiting: 60

Income Tax: 67

Bank Robbery: 129

Immigration: 176

Others: 200

Fraud: 282

Drugs: 294

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Civil Cases

Real Property: 122

Forfeiture: 161

Bankruptcy: 232

Social Security: 334

Federal Tax Suits: 550

Torts: 758

Labor: 890

Property Rights: 916

Civil Rights: 1167

Other Statutes: 1195

Prisoner Petitions: 2,340

Contract: 2,388

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