LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — The federal government is considering closing dozens of courtrooms, many of which are located in small, rural communities, as part of an effort to cut costs.
Documents obtained by The Associated Press show 60 federal court facilities in 29 states could be on the chopping block. Most of the courtrooms are in buildings that house other federal agencies including post offices and many are located in remote areas. 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 sites 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 court 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 Carolina, and 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 court sites are not the only targets that the federal government is taking aim at in rural parts of the country. As pressure mounts to trim spending, the government has considered closing post offices and eliminating federal subsidies for carriers that serve airports in rural communities and small towns.
"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 he pointed out that the court system is at the beginning of the process of reviewing which courthouse facilities could close.
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.
Documents obtained by the AP show that annual operating costs and rent for the 60 facilities total more than $16 million each year, but other costs were not known. Sellers 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.
J. Leon Holmes, the chief federal judge of the Eastern District of Arkansas, 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 site, which ranked seventh on the possible closure list.
"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, a city of 10,000, is about 70 miles from the nearest federal court in Jonesboro, but that site is also on the list. It's about 100 miles from Batesville to Little Rock, which has the only federal courtrooms in the Eastern District of Arkansas that aren'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.
Alaska Sen. Mark Begich also questioned the impact the possible closures in Fairbanks, Ketchikan and Juneau could have on residents who would have to drive hundreds of miles or buy a ticket to attend a court proceeding.
"It would be a disservice to Alaskans in these cities — to arbitrarily shut off their access to the federal courts," the Democrat said in a statement Thursday.
Fred Triem, an attorney who works in Juneau and Petersburg, Alaska, said while he applauds the idea of saving money, the closures could mean hardship for people who have federal court business and no federal court.
"If you're a poor person in Juneau, Alaska, and there's no federal court building, then how are you going to have your bankruptcy hearing?" he asked Thursday. "Are you going to have to pay your travel to go to Anchorage when you don't even have enough money to pay your electric bill?"
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