ABA expresses concern about mounting judicial crisis

The ABA urged Congress last month to protect the federal judiciary from future deficit reduction and increase funding for fiscal year 2014 to the Senate Appropriations Committee’s recommended level of $6.67 billion.

 “The federal judiciary’s annual appropriation must be sufficient to enable it to carry out all of the justice functions assigned to it by the Constitution and Congress,” ABA Governmental Affairs Director Thomas M. Susman emphasized in a letter for the record of a July 23 Senate hearing on the impact of sequestration on the federal courts.  The Senate figure is a 2.2 percent increase over the judiciary appropriation for fiscal year 2013 that was in place before sequestration reduced the judiciary budget by $350 million.

In his July 30 letter to the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Bankruptcy and the Courts, Susman pointed out that, in addition to the actual adjudication of all cases filed in federal court, the federal judiciary has numerous other constitutional and statutory responsibilities. These include directing pretrial diversion programs and supervising defendants awaiting trial, providing representation for indigent criminal defendants, securing jurors for jury trials, supervising criminals on post-conviction release, and ensuring the safety of all those who work at or enter federal court facilities. 

 “Inadequate funding of any one function will have a negative ripple effect on the rest of the judicial system, a phenomenon amply demonstrated by the effect that funding cuts to defender services have had on the operation of the courts,” Susman warned.

He noted that the adverse impact of sequestration is particularly pronounced and worrisome for defender services programs, which provide legal representation to indigent defendants in criminal cases.

     Continued funding cuts to defender services likely will exacerbate an imbalance between prosecutor and defender offices, increase government costs in the long run, imperil defendants’ Sixth Amendment rights to effective assistance of counsel and statutory guarantees of a speedy trial, and challenge the country’s commitment to equal justice under the law, Susman wrote.

During the hearing, Michael S. Nachmanoff, testifying on behalf of the Federal Public and Community Defenders, said that federal defenders have lost more than 200 employees and will be operating by Oct. 1 at staffing levels approximately 10 percent below what is needed to meet workload demands.

 “If action is not taken immediately to save the program, the federal defender system will be devastated,” Nachmanoff said.

Judge Julia S. Gibbons, chair of the Budget Committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States, also highlighted the deep cuts to the Defender Services program and expressed the judiciary’s concerns about the ability of probation and pretrial officers to provide adequate supervision and rehabilitation resources for defendants awaiting trial and as well as those on probation. The level of court staffing, she testified, is the lowest since 1999 despite significant workload growth.

 “While we have made every attempt to minimize the impact of sequestration on federal court operations nationwide, the emergency measures currently in place are not sustainable for another year, she said, cautioning against flat funding for fiscal year 2014.

 “Flat funding,” she said, “will force the judiciary to consider deep cuts to security funding and raise serious concerns that such cuts may compromise the safety and security of the judicial process.”    

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