Splendor in the Court

How lavish can $20 million in cost overruns make a federal court- house? Let's start with the $33,000 desk.

The firm's choice of counter-top materials for the small galley area adjoining Judge Browning's chambers also failed to meet Mrs. Browning's standards. Project specifications called for a standard laminate counter; Mrs. Browning, however, wanted Corian, an expensive, high-quality, heat-proof material that looks like marble. Mrs. Browning ultimately "compromised" and settled for a white Calacatta marble in the kitchen.

As far as jobs go, being a federal appellate judge is a pretty good gig. Circuit judges are appointed by the President, confirmed (or not) by the Senate, and then serve lifelong terms. Thirteen of the Ninth Circuit's 18 active judges, including Chief Judge Procter Hug Jr., are Carter appointees, but the court is fairly evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. A judge who reaches age 65 and has served for 15 years can assume senior status -- and retire on full salary for the rest of his life. Currently, the Ninth Circuit has 18 active judges, and 10 vacant judgeships. The job pays $145,000 a year, plus health benefits, a tax-deferred savings plan, and $139,000 in life insurance. Schedules are flexible, with unlimited sick or vacation days based simply on need and caseloads.

Ninth Circuit judges typically hear oral arguments the first week of each month: During the remaining three weeks, judges can work from home or wherever they wish. The schedules are loose enough to allow conservative Judge Alex Kozinski -- a Reagan appointee and the youngest appellate court judge this century -- time to write guest columns on video games for Microsoft's Web magazine, Slate. Unlike the Supreme Court's chief justice, appellate court judges of the Ninth Circuit do not get chauffeured to and from the courthouse. But they do get their own underground parking spaces.

Federal appellate judges consider appeals from decisions made by the federal district courts. Ninth Circuit judges typically hear cases in three-judge panels, though in rare instances the full court will reconsider cases en banc. Each year, the Supreme Court reviews what it considers the most important decisions made by the 11 appellate courts: This year 21 of the 80 cases the Supremes will hear are from the Ninth Circuit.

Being a Ninth Circuit judge is not all sunshine and roses. The largest and busiest appeals court in the United States, the Ninth Circuit hears more than 8,000 appeals each year. Its jurisdiction includes more than 50 million people in the nine western states, plus Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.

The Ninth Circuit has earned the dubious reputation as the most reversed federal appellate court in the land, regularly (some say deliberately) crossing the Supreme Court on issues ranging from the death penalty to welfare benefits. Last year alone, the Supreme Court overturned 28 of the 29 Ninth Circuit decisions it reviewed.

The Ninth Circuit is also known as the most liberal appellate court in the system, a defender of the variously oppressed. Welfare recipients, illegal immigrants, and death row inmates have all had sympathetic receptions before the Ninth Circuit. This is, after all, the court that ruled Rastafarians can use their religious belief in marijuana as a sacrament as a defense against drug possession charges.

A frustrated Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist once remarked in a newspaper article that "some panels of the Ninth Circuit have a hard time saying no to any litigant with a hard-luck story."

The Ninth Circuit's reputation has fueled a proposal to split the court, separating what Washington Republicans perceive as California's pervasive left-leaning influence from the rest of the court. The split would create a new Twelfth Circuit and a greatly reduced Ninth Circuit that would cover only California, Nevada, Guam, and the Marianas. A congressional committee has begun a general study of all the federal circuit courts, which includes a possible Ninth Circuit split, and is expected to report back within a year. Splitting the Ninth Circuit into two appellate courts would, of course, create a need.

A need for another appellate courthouse.

It's easy to make the case for restoring a magnificent historic structure like the U.S. Court of Appeals building in San Francisco. It's not so easy to make the case for 40 percent cost overruns and $33,000 desks.

The people directly responsible for the project don't seem to have much of a problem with its ultimate cost. General Services Administration regional spokeswoman Mary Filippini admits that a $20 million increase in the original construction contract is "considerable," though she says there might be some "mitigating circumstances because of the historical nature of the project."

But as for expensive particulars such as $33,000 desks and carpets running $100 per square yard, the GSA referred queries to the Ninth Circuit. "The GSA is the developer. The client is the party that asks for certain things," says Filippini.

The appeals court, in this case, is the client. When asked about the extravagant spending that went into the building, court staff prefer to talk about seismic costs, not cost overruns. Judge Browning, for one, insists the renovations were modest. A friendly, soft-spoken man, he says he didn't pay much attention to the new furnishings in his suite and elsewhere in the building.

"I don't want to nitpick about how much things cost," says Browning, a Kennedy appointee.

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