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County vs Federal Courthouses: What’s the Difference?

by Keith Fentress / December 30, 2021

Our court planning work is split between serving local courts and federal courts. It has been interesting to be involved with the different jurisdictions and to witness how their respective courthouses function.

With respect to local courts, we have provided services to state, county, and municipal courthouses, but the majority have been at the county level. This article focuses on the ways county courthouses, in particular, differ from federal courthouses.

I have received lots of questions and comments over the years about the differences between the two. Representatives in county courts see larger federal courthouses in their communities and feel that, unlike county courts, the federal government has more than ample funds to build large facilities. On the flip side, representatives from federal courts often comment that county courthouses seem to be constructed much more quickly than federal courthouses. I will attempt to add some clarity to this conversation.

Design Standards

A key difference between county and federal courts is that the federal courts have well-established design standards based on in-depth studies of the functions housed within and among the space types. These standards are contained in the U.S. Courts Design Guide, which specifies the recommended size of courtrooms, chambers, jury facilities, and court unit offices. These design standards are consistent across facilities and scalable to courthouses of different sizes. The standards are updated on a periodic basis to align courthouse space with lessons learned from past projects.

County courthouses do not typically have defined standards. Some states have developed design guidelines that apply to county courts, such as in Virginia and California, but most county courthouses are not constructed using formalized design standards. This means that the sizes of courtrooms and spaces in the courthouse are based on the knowledge of the architectural firm, industry standards, and whether the architectural team contains a court consultant that specializes in space programming for courthouses.

For this reason, the sizes of spaces in county courthouses vary greatly and are more adaptable to constraints or budget limitations for the project. This enables the county courts to have more flexibility in design, but can also lead to sacrificing court functionality because there are no defined standards that support court operations. And more often than not, the space standards for county courts are smaller than a federal court with similar functions.

Courthouse Size

A common misperception that I hear about federal courts is that they build large, oversized facilities. It is true that there are some very large federal courthouses in major metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles and New York City. Federal courts are located throughout the nation and the majority are constructed in metropolitan areas. However, there are also many mid-sized federal courthouses in smaller cities and towns. As a matter of fact, the smallest courthouses I have ever worked in were federal courthouses.

There are over 500 federal courthouses divided into 94 districts throughout the nation, including the U.S. territories. The size of each federal courthouse is based on the size of the jurisdiction and the workload of that particular court. A federal court does not serve a single city or county – each district is composed of divisions that encompass numerous counties.

I was recently working at a county court in the Midwest and someone mentioned that the local federal court is considerably larger than the planned county courthouse. What they did not know was that the federal court served the population of a dozen counties, not just the county where the courthouse was located.

From my perspective, county courthouses in large metropolitan areas are often just as large as their federal counterparts. The size of the courthouse is principally determined by the number of courtrooms. Courtrooms drive the floor plan and also dictate the need for three zones of circulation: public circulation, restricted circulation (for staff), and secure circulation (for prisoners).

If a county courthouse and a federal courthouse each had ten courtrooms used for both civil and criminal proceedings, as well as a clerk’s office, probation office, etc., the two facilities would be similar in size, flow, and function.

Planning Process

Another difference between county courts and federal courts is the way courthouse needs are identified. States like California, Massachusetts, and Oregon have statewide courthouse planning programs. Courthouses are assessed on a statewide basis and needs are prioritized across the state.

A similar system exists at the federal level. The federal courts have a robust long-range facilities planning process that identifies courthouse needs. Once the need for a new courthouse project has been identified, it is prioritized at the national level based on urgency of need.

However, in most counties, courthouses are planned and prioritized at the county level. These projects can become very political. A prime example is Augusta County, Virginia, where the need for new court facilities has been well-established, but a decade or more has gone by with no permanent solution for suitable court space.

Counties must balance the need for court projects along with all other county capital expenses. While the situation can provide counties with flexibility relative to timing and funding, the competing priorities can also result in delays for approval of courthouse renovation and construction projects. The situation is often backburnered until the court has significant operational compromises and/or security risks, and can delay no longer.

Courthouse Funding

A final difference is the funding of courthouses. Counties vary in their approach to courthouse funding, including bonds, new taxes, capital improvement funds, public-private partnerships, etc. While all of these approaches have their strengths and challenges, a key point is that many counties have multiple options when it comes to funding new court facilities.

At the federal level, there is only one approach to funding a new courthouse, and that is an appropriation from Congress to the U.S. General Services Administration. Because the federal courts have a lengthy list of needed projects, a court in need of space may wait decades for a new courthouse. For this reason, I have heard federal courts comment on how quickly county courts can be funded and constructed. As noted above, this is not always true. But, as a general rule, county courthouse projects receive funding faster than federal courthouses.

The Differences Aren’t as Great as the Similarities

Though there are differences in how courthouses are approved, designed, funded, and constructed, I find that most county courthouses and federal courthouses operate similarly. The end goal of each is to have a courthouse that is functional and safe.

In our county and federal courthouse assessment work, we score courthouses on a scale between 0 and 100, with 100 representing an ideal facility with respect to functionality, security, building condition, and design standards. The average score for all courthouses, across both the county and federal courthouse portfolios, is in the mid-70s. So, despite all of the differences, courts share the same concerns when it comes to the space that is lacking for efficient operations, the compromises in security, and the age of buildings that are deteriorating and have outlived their useful life.

Courthouses are public icons whether they represent the local community or the federal government. It is my hope that courthouses of all jurisdictions will be designed in a way that truly promotes the administration of justice.


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Keith Fentress

Keith Fentress

Keith Fentress is the founder and president of Fentress Incorporated. He has an extensive history of consulting to real property organizations. His skills include organizational development, program evaluation, and business process improvement. He enjoys outdoor pursuits like backpacking, canoeing, and snorkeling.