Congressman Cuellar, San Antonio Delegation Introduce Courthouse Funding Bill
Bipartisan legislation would provide emergency appropriations for new San Antonio federal courthouse
Today Congressman Henry Cuellar (D-TX-28), along with San Antonio Representatives Will Hurd (R-TX-23), Lamar Smith (R-TX-21), Lloyd Doggett (D-TX-35) and Joaquin Castro (D-TX-20), introduced H.R. 3612, bipartisan legislation to provide emergency funding for FY 2016 for the construction of a new federal courthouse for the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas.
If passed, the San Antonio delegation’s bill, which would require an emergency budgetary designation by Congress, will provide an adequate seat of justice for a large federal judicial district that covers nearly 92,000 square miles and has divisions in Austin, Del Rio, El Paso, Midland, Pecos and Waco.
The current John H. Wood, Jr. U.S. Courthouse in San Antonio was built nearly 50 years ago and suited not to the task of administering justice but to hosting part of the 1968 World's Fair.
The courthouse as it is currently built causes numerous problems for its users. Judges, jurors, prosecutors and visitors often pass defendants charged with violent crimes in corridors and conveyances around the building. The building lacks a protected perimeter; tests positive for high levels of lead and iron contamination in its water, likely due to poor pipe construction; and is missing proper heating and air conditioning controls, not to mention asbestos and mold in and around the HVAC systems.
Physical and environmental safety issues aside, the courthouse has nowhere near the capacity needed for current staffing levels. Originally housing two judges and 24 staff, the building is now home to seven judges and more than 280 staff.
All of these factors place unneeded stress on a busy federal judicial district.
"The Wood Courthouse has kept the Western District going for nearly 50 years, but it unfortunately does not have the capacity to support it any longer," Congressman Cuellar said. "The project to build a new courthouse is deserving of emergency appropriations because of the building’s numerous problems: The building’s water quality, air quality, space, safety and security issues go beyond simple repairs, and I am calling on Congress and the General Services Administration (GSA) to approve the construction of a new courthouse immediately.
"The current courthouse was designed and built nearly 50 years ago and was not intended for its current purpose. It was designed to be a temporary pavilion for the 1968 World’s Fair. Not surprisingly, the courthouse has serious safety and security concerns. Prisoners are not separated from judges, juries, lawyers, civilians, and staff; they are often walking the same hallways. Water in the building has been found to contain unhealthy levels of lead and iron. Similarly, the HVAC systems leak, have exposed electrical wires and contain asbestos and mold buildup. In addition, much of the building is not in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act."
The bipartisan San Antonio delegation is united behind building the Western District a new judicial home.
"For too long, the Wood Courthouse has languished on a waitlist, stalling new construction for critical security and safety updates," said Congressman Castro. "Emergency funding is essential to ensure the courthouse’s basic functionality and to protect workers and visitors from potentially serious harm."
Noted Congressman Hurd: "It’s outrageous that some of the most violent drug trafficking and organized crime cases in Texas are being tried in a 1960s movie theater. The building’s shortcomings pose a serious physical threat to the federal employees that work there and the increasing number of civilians who visit the adjacent playground. The way I see it, the current facility puts the health and safety of San Antonians at risk. Moving the U.S. federal court proceedings out of this dangerous location is a public safety priority."
Said Congressman Smith: "Contaminated water, asbestos and mold have all recently been discovered at the U.S. District Courthouse for the Western District in San Antonio. This is a necessary step we must take in order to address many safety and security issues at the courthouse."
Said Congressman Doggett: "Despite years of our Bexar congressional delegation working together to secure construction funding, we still have a vacant lot where we should have a hall of justice. This year House Republicans have refused to fund new courthouse construction anywhere in the country. Prior to that, the Administrative Office of the Courts unjustifiably downgraded the priority for our courthouse. In these circumstances, this emergency bill may be only a ‘hail Mary’ pass, but I am in favor of throwing it."
H.R. 3612 calls for the new courthouse to be built on city-owned land at police headquarters on West Nueva Street. The new land would be acquired by the GSA, the federal government's "landlord," through a land swap with the city.
The Wood Courthouse has long been known to be inadequate, but funding for a replacement has been delayed for years. Since 2000, the GSA has been exploring replacement options for the Wood Courthouse among others.
"A new federal courthouse is long overdue," said San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor. "The recent water and air quality problems within the Woods Federal Courthouse come on top of long-standing security concerns. We are grateful for Congressman Cuellar’s attention and sponsorship and Congressmen Smith, Castro, Doggett and Hurd for their support as original co-sponsors of this emergency appropriation in FY16."
San Antonio City Manager Sheryl Sculley noted the redevelopment possibilities of building a new federal courthouse: "In 2010, the City agreed to swap its former Police Headquarter site for the existing Federal Courthouse site in HemisFair Park. The exchange would be catalytic for two areas of downtown redevelopment; the Park and the Civic Center where the new courthouse would be built. Both the city and federal government are waiting for Congress to fund the construction of the new courthouse in order to close on the transaction."