Officials are preparing “a vigorous defense” to keep the Ward R. Burke Federal Courthouse in Lufkin open, a U.S. District Court clerk said Monday.
As part of an effort to cut costs, the federal government is considering closing dozens of courtrooms across the country, including the federal courthouse in Lufkin. In documents obtained by the Associated Press, court facilities that could close were ranked based on a variety of categories including cost, usage and location. Of the 60 facilities to be looked at for possible closure, Lufkin’s courthouse was ranked 45th.
“The ones nearest to the front — No. 1, No. 2 — would have the lowest closure score, meaning they’re getting the least amount of use,” David Maland, U.S. District Court clerk for the Eastern District of Texas, said in a telephone interview from Tyler. “The fact that Lufkin is 45th out of 60 says that it’s getting a fair amount of use. We are preparing a vigorous rebuttal of the position that the courthouse should be closed. We’re going to make the point that Lufkin is an essential part of our business plan. We are a growing court and expect that we may be placing a judge or judges in Lufkin in the next three to five years because we’re going to need more places for judges to sit, and this is a functioning courthouse that has a lot of utility to us.”
David Sellers, a federal courts spokesman, told the Associated Press that 60 sites considered for closure, including facilities in Lufkin and four other Texas cities, do not have a resident judge. Judges based in larger cities travel to these smaller locations as needed.
“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.
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, according to Sellers. 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.
“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.
Lufkin attorney Robert Flournoy, who has practiced law in Angelina County since 1967, said a closure would create hardship for attorneys, litigants and jurors alike.
“It would be very difficult for attorneys, but that’s not the big problem. It’s jurors having to go so far to serve, either to Beaumont or Tyler,” Flournoy said. “We’re a large enough area, and we have a great facility. We ought to be able to continue keeping this facility open and try cases here. It’s certainly strategically located in a place where we can justify having someone maintain this courthouse full-time and bring in judges to travel here and try these cases. It would be a real shame with all the work we went through to get a courthouse established here to have it close down.”
Maland said he has contacted key members of the bar in Angelina County, inviting them to rally colleagues for support. He also encouraged those wishing to make comment do so by email at email@example.com by the end of business today.
“There are a number of other things we’re going to stress, as well, but this is an important part of our business plan,” Maland said. “We’ve been making a vigorous defense of keeping it open and will continue to until we run out of procedure.”
Many of the courthouses considered for closure are located in rural communities. According to the Associated Press, other facilities in Texas under consideration for closure include those in Amarillo, San Angelo, Pecos and Wichita Falls.
The building at 104 N. Third St. in Lufkin has served as a federal courthouse since the 1980s and is named for Lufkin attorney Ward R. Burke. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1988.
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