Sam Sparks: Experienced federal judge, respected legal expert, new president of Austin’s venerable Headliners Club.
And, it turns out, tour guide extraordinaire, which is fortuitous because we’re coming up on the six-month anniversary of the opening of our striking new federal courthouse. Time to see how it’s working out.
Really well, is the verdict from Sparks, who recently led a courthouse tour for some local folks including me. Ditto from Lee Yeakel, our other active-duty federal district judge.
“New is good,” Yeakel said, though he said the old courthouse “had things we’re going to miss because they don’t build with the elegance they did in the 1930s.”
Perhaps the biggest advance is in security. The old courthouse, built in 1936, had been patchworked over the years to try to keep up with the changing world of security. The new eight-story, 242,420-square-foot courthouse (price tag $123 million), opened for business Dec. 3 and includes the latest in security features, including 240 cameras and a traffic flow that keeps prisoners separated from everyone else.
The biggest problem, Sparks and Yeakel said, is the minimal seating for the public in the courtrooms and the courthouse corridors. And that’s kind of weird because the courthouse, overall, is bigger than we can use now. We’ll get back to that.
The building’s largest courtroom is on the first floor, is known as the “ceremonial courtroom” and it’s not assigned to any judge. Sparks recently used it for jury selection for five defendants accused of laundering money for the Zetas cartel. The process, he said, “filled up the courtroom which meant nobody from the public could be in there during jury selection, which is really a violation of our due process.” On the final day of testimony in Sparks’ fourth-floor courtroom a capacity crowd filled the seats.
Sparks and Yeakel both said the limited seating (room for about 60) in each of their courtrooms means that when the rooms are busy — as when many people are in for sentencing — courthouse personnel have to shuttle family members and others in and out of the room.
And there’s little public seating outside the courtrooms.
“So they have to stand, and that’s really, I think, the biggest problem that we have,” Sparks said during the tour.
Yeakel, in an interview, said much the same.
“The biggest problem in the courtrooms is the lack of adequate public seating. Judge Sparks and I argued for eight years to not build the public seating areas in the courtrooms as small as was done and we got nowhere,” he said. “So that was a battle lost.”
Yeakel says the courtrooms are big enough for most cases, but noted that Austin has many cases that attract a lot of interest. “It’s not uncommon to have 80 to 100 people who want to come into the courtroom at the same time,” he said. “My old courtroom would accommodate that. This one will not.”
Sparks’ believes federal folks who plan courthouses “don’t want people lingering.”
Yeakel, who brought some hallway benches over from the old courthouse, does not believe security was a factor.
“It was not a mistake,” he said of the seating capacity. “It was a decision and it was made above the pay grade of the United States district judges in Austin. … What we heard from the General Services Administration was that fewer people are attending trials around the country.”
Not so in Austin, according to Yeakel.
“At the end of the day one of the hallmarks of democracy is that the judicial system should function in a transparent fashion which means anyone who wants to observe what goes on in our courts should be allowed, within reason” to do so, he told me.
The oddity is that while the building might have inadequate seating, it also has unused courtrooms. That’s because it was built for the five district judges to which we’re entitled but, to hear our two local federal district judges tell it, we may never have. (There are eight courtrooms in the building. Sparks and Yeakel each have one. U.S. District Judge James Nowlin, who is on “senior status,” has one. And two magistrate judges each have one. That leaves three vacant courtrooms.)
“I don’t see how or when or if we are going to get them,” Yeakel said of additional judges. And, he told me, “at some point your business is going to write articles on what a waste of money it was to build this courthouse because we are not using the space.”
Such a conclusion, he said, would be “wrongheaded.”
“It’s not too big for what we need,” Yeakel said of our new courthouse. “It’s too big for what we are given to do our job with. If we’re not going to get the people to do our job then you could question why we needed a new courthouse, other than security.”
At this point you need to know about a 2010 U.S. Government Accountability Office report concerning federal courthouses. The agency’s review of 33 such projects completed since 2000 found that 3.56 million square feet of space “was constructed above the congressionally authorized size due to overestimating the number of judges the courthouses would have.”
“Overall,” the report concluded, “this (excess) space represents about nine average-sized courthouses.” That crunches out to $835 million for the extra space, with an annual operations tab of $51 million.
The ongoing tension at work here is the difference between the number of judges justified by caseloads and the number of judges approved by Congress. Based on caseload, Austin is entitled to three additional judgeships, but Congress never has authorized them. This is not a case of nominees awaiting confirmation. This is about judicial slots that have not been OK’d by Congress.
“We have plenty of space, plenty of space to grow,” Sparks said, noting we’re entitled to more district judges but “it’s never gotten to the Congress and it never will.”
The Sparks theory on Congress and the judiciary: “The Congress hates the courts, in case you haven’t noticed. (Members of Congress) don’t like courts that tell them that their acts are bad. They don’t like the Supreme Court.”
Yeakel doesn’t like the term “too big” when talking about the new courthouse.
“I would say we have space we are not utilizing that we need to utilize today and that we will need to utilize down the road within the 100-year-plus existence of this courthouse,” he said. “It was built to handle Austin’s needs for a long time into the future. At a snapshot moment right now it is underutilized.
“I can’t say whether it will be underutilized in 10 or 20 or 30 years, but I do know it was a good deal for the taxpayers of this country because it was cheaper to build it during the immediate past recession than it is likely to be at any time in the foreseeable future,” Yeakel said.
Both judges are pleased with the art and architecture of their new work home. Sparks, as well-known to anyone who has incurred his wrath in the courtroom, was not shy about casting a critical eye about some things during the recent tour.
“Be careful with those wires,” he said, pointing to a corner of his courtroom. “That’s a flaw they haven’t corrected yet. They control the curtains that will come down for glare, and at my first jury trial a guy got his shoulder caught in that and it threw him to the floor.”
In the ceremonial courtroom, he headed toward a lectern he called “this monster” and said it is too large for a shorter attorney to use.
“The function is not to have a beautiful lectern, it’s to let the jury see the lawyer,” Sparks said, adding that he and Yeakel designed more functional ones for their courtrooms.
“And that’s the kind of problems we had with the architects,” he said. “They’re very good … but the architects had no idea about the functions of a courtroom, so we’ve got some shortcomings.”
Sparks likes the handsome pecan wood — fabricated in Canada — that covers the courtroom walls. And he noted that there’s a lot of Chinese material in the building, which, he said, means that federal economic stimulus money used to build the courthouse also helped stimulate some foreign economies.
Sparks likes the oversized artwork near the building’s entry, though the lower portion of it requires some explanation.
“It’s a (photographic) shot of a ranch road at Boerne up there by San Antonio. The artist just took the negative and blew it up. It looks like a dark day with snow all over it. Well, we know that didn’t happen in Boerne,” he said.
He also encouraged us to look around outside the building.
“The government spent an awful lot of money on all of the landscaping and it’s really pretty. I hope they can maintain it. I don’t think the government can maintain an iron ball, however, so there’s going to be problems as we go through this,” he said. “But right now it’s gorgeous, with one exception.”
The exception is a portion of the exterior that has become something of a hangout for the homeless.
Both judges also said the jury deliberation rooms are a bit too small. The one we toured included a basket of snacks and a bottle of Walgreens Stay Awake pills. Sometimes, I guess, justice can make you sleepy.