LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — The federal government is considering closing up to 60 court sites across the country, including one in Aiken, as part of an effort to cut costs.
Documents obtained by The Associated Press show federal court facilities in 29 states could be on the chopping block. Many of the sites are in remote areas and critics say closing them could make it more difficult for people to get to court proceedings.
Six of the 60 court sites that could be closed are located in Arkansas. Texas and Georgia each have five courts on the list of possible closures. Officials are even considering shuttering the location where judges hold federal court in Alaska’s capital city, Juneau.
There are 674 federal courthouses and facilities around the country, according to David Sellers, a federal courts spokesman. The 60 sites being considered for closure do not have a resident judge. Instead, judges based in larger cities travel to these smaller locations as needed.
In the documents obtained by the AP, the courthouse facilities that could close were ranked based on a variety of categories including cost, usage and location. Of the 10 facilities that seem most likely to be eyed for closure, two are in Arkansas, two are in South Carolinaand the rest are spread out between West Virginia, North Carolina, Mississippi, Virginia, Georgia and Maryland. A facility in Beaufort, S.C., tops the list, followed by the federal court site in Parkersburg, W.V. and one in Harrison, Ark.
“The federal judiciary is going through an aggressive cost containment effort because the money Congress has provided for the operating expenses for the courts has been essentially frozen the last three years,” Sellers said in an email.
He said a significant portion of those funds are used to pay rent for federal court facilities and pointed out that the court system is at the beginning of the process of reviewing which courthouse facilities could close.
Aiken observers remarked they hadn’t seen much court held in the Charles E. Simons Jr. Federal Courthouse since its namesake died in 1999.
“There’s nobody there,” Aiken City Manager Richard Pearce said. “They keep the lights on and have court there very infrequently.”
Still, the 1935 structure, built through one of the federal depression-era construction programs is “an asset” to Aiken, Pearce said.
Behind the judge’s bench inside is an important mural by New York artist Stefan Hirsch that few have seen because most judges kept it concealed behind a curtain during court, said Tom Mack, chairman of the English department at University of South Carolina Aiken.
The mural, a brightly-colored triptych with Justice portrayed as a barefoot woman in the center panel, was somewhat controversial among Aikenites in earlier days as it was painted in a cubist style.
“Some people didn’t like that the federal government was making a decision about art,” Mack said. Others believed the shading used to paint Lady Justice indicated she wasn’t entirely white, he said.
Mack said Aiken had done well with repurposing other federal buildings, such as the former U.S. Post Office now an office of Savannah River Nuclear Solutions.
With the mural permanently affixed to the courthouse wall, “the only way to save that building is to repurpose it,” Mack said.
A committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States, the policy-making body for the federal courts, in February asked the 13 circuit judicial councils to review the list and recommend whether to keep the courts without resident judges, Sellers said. They’re supposed to get back to the committee by mid-April.
The committee will then review the recommendations and forward its report to the Judicial Conference, which could decide whether to close any of the court sites at its September meeting, Sellers said.
He said it’s too early to speculate how much could be saved or how many jobs could be lost by the possible closures.
“It would depend on what, if any, facilities are closed, when the closure would occur, the rent on the particular facility, staff located at the facility, other needs in the circuit, as well as many other factors that vary from facility to facility,” Sellers said.
The effort to close the sites drew pushback from Judge J. Leon Holmes, the chief federal judge of the Eastern District of Arkansas, who argued that closing court facilities wouldn’t make a significant reduction in the federal budget.
“If the federal courts close their facilities in these places, the money will quit going from one pocket of the federal government to another pocket of the federal government, but little or no savings to the taxpayers will be seen,” Holmes wrote in a letter dated Feb. 23 and sent to local bar associations. “Instead, the taxpayers will be forced to travel longer distances to appear in court as parties, witnesses, or jurors.”
Holmes, who is based in Little Rock, specifically spoke against closing the Batesville, Ark. court facility, which ranked seventh on the possible closure list. He said he wouldn’t argue for building a new court facility there if the court was starting from scratch.
“(B)ut we are not starting from scratch,” he wrote in another letter dated March 14. “The building is there, and it is already paid for.”
Holmes also pointed to the potential hardships that closing a court facility could mean to Batesville, a city of 10,000 located in a remote part of the state.
“Travel through the mountains in this region of Arkansas is exclusively on two-lane highways,” he wrote. “Consequently, the actual driving time from one point to another is much greater than may appear in looking on a map or in calculating distances.”
Batesville is about 70 miles from the nearest federal court site in Jonesboro, but that court site is also on the list. It’s about 100 miles from Batesville to Little Rock, which has the only federal court site in the Eastern District of Arkansas that isn’t on the chopping block.
Holmes also said he was concerned that the possible closures would affect a relatively poor region.
“Many of the persons in the poorer and more remote areas of our state cannot easily travel to Little Rock to attend bankruptcy court or any other proceeding,” Holmes wrote.
The push to close small federal court offices is not new. Sellers said the practice of reviewing court facilities that don’t have a resident judge goes back to 1997.
Still, some judges have expressed concerns about the renewed effort due to budget concerns this year.
“Although we fought this issue successfully a few years ago, the budget pressures are greater now and the drive within the judiciary to contain costs is much stronger,” Holmes wrote in the February letter.
Staff writer Susan McCord contributed to this article.