For the second consecutive year, ABA Day in Washington, D.C., drew participants from all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.
ABA Day is the association’s annual effort to connect policymakers with their constituents in the legal profession. The event, held April 16-18 this year, brings together volunteer leaders from local, state and specialty bar associations to speak to their elected officials on issues of vital importance to the profession, to clients and to the public.
This ABA Day focused on funding for the Legal Services Corporation, filling federal judicial vacancies and funding for the judiciary.
The Legal Services Corporation is the single largest provider of civil legal aid in the nation, distributing 95 percent of its federal appropriation to 133 legal aid programs, with more than 900 offices nationwide. Those benefiting from LSC-funded programs are among the most vulnerable Americans, including veterans returning from combat, domestic violence victims, those coping with the effects of natural disasters, families involved in child custody disputes, people with disabilities and individuals undergoing foreclosures or other housing issues. ABA Day participants urged their members of Congress to provide $430 million for the LSC.
ABA Day President Laurel Bellows discusses Legal Services Corporation funding in the office of Rep. John Conyers (D-MI)
Lawyers across the country are also concerned about the length and number of federal judicial vacancies. There have been 75 to 100 vacancies on the federal bench for most of the past 48 months. At present, 10 percent of federal judgeships are vacant. Many of the vacancies are classified as “judicial emergencies” by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.
Vacancies burden federal courts that are already strained by limited resources. Jurisdictions struggling with excessive caseloads and too few judges are challenged to keep up with burgeoning workloads and to give each case the time it deserves. Vacancy-fueled delays impose significant burdens on communities and businesses. Short-handed courts in some cases must sidetrack civil trial dockets because of constitutional and statutory requirements for a speedy criminal trial. ABA Day participants asked their senators to hold up-or-down votes on those judicial nominees favorably reported out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, notably those with little to no recorded opposition.
The consequences of unfilled vacancies will be exacerbated in the coming months when staff layoffs and reductions in operating hours are implemented in courts across the country to meet across-the-board federal budget cutbacks mandated by the process known as sequestration.
The federal judiciary needs sufficient funds to perform the core functions assigned to it by the Constitution and Congress. These include adjudicating all cases that are filed in federal court, supervising defendants awaiting a trial as well as criminals on post-conviction release, providing representation for indigent defendants, securing jurors for trials, and ensuring the safety of all those who work at or enter federal court facilities.
Sequestration reduced the federal judiciary’s fiscal 2013 budget appropriation by $350 million. The Judicial Conference of the United States estimates that thousands of employees will face furloughs and others will be laid off. In addition, there will be 20 percent less funds available for drug testing and mental health treatment, 25 percent less for probation and pretrial training services, 30 percent less for court security systems and equipment, and 50 percent less for background investigations. Staff downsizing (which is in addition to a reduction in force of more than 1,800 employees since July 2011) and cuts to various programs are forcing courts to curtail services and delay trials.
Justices, judges, court administrators and bar associations around the country have warned that cuts of this magnitude are not sustainable and will result in the delay and denial of justice if they extend into fiscal 2014 and beyond.
For more information on ABA Day, click here.