June 27, 2018

Federal Court Funding


The federal judiciary requires sufficient funds to perform the core functions assigned to it by the Constitution and Congress. These include adjudicating all cases filed in federal courts; supervising defendants awaiting trial and criminals on post-conviction release; providing representation for indigent defendants; securing jurors for jury trials; and ensuring the safety of all those who work at or enter federal court facilities. These are vast responsibilities that generate a workload over which the judiciary has no control. In 2017, over 395,000 cases were filed in district courts and courts of appeal; over 790,000 petitions were filed in bankruptcy courts; approximately 223,000 persons were placed under pre-trial or post-conviction supervision; and 185,000 indigent criminal defendants were provided counsel under the Criminal Justice Act.

Deficit Reduction and the Courts

The Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011, P.L. 112-25, provided a blueprint to reduce the federal deficit by over $2 trillion by the year 2021. Unpopular and politically contentious since its passage, the act mandated across-the-board budget cuts in 2013, followed by reductions to the annual caps on discretionary spending (as well as automatic cuts to selected entitlement programs) in each year from 2014 through 2021. The law provides that failure to adhere to the budget caps in any designated year will trigger another across-the-board sequestration.

In FY 2013, sequestration reduced non-defense discretionary spending by five percent. The judiciary, like every other component of government, was subject to the mandatory sequestration, resulting in a $350 million funding cut, which constrained court operations nationwide. Throughout the year, budget negotiations continued to be contentious and resulted in a 16-day government shut-down.  

Congressional will to reduce the budget quickly subsided, and since 2013, Congress has bypassed the BCA caps by passing a series of budget deals that have raised discretionary spending caps.

  • In December 2013, Congress passed a two-year budget deal (P.L. 113-67) that significantly raised the discretionary spending caps for the 2014 and 2015 fiscal years.
  • Similarly, in 2015, congressional leaders agreed to replace the BCA spending limits with a plan to raise discretionary caps by $80 billion over two years and suspend the debt limit until March 17, 2017. The cap increase − $50 billion in 2016 and $30 billion in 2017 − was split evenly between defense and nondefense accounts, a precondition that Democrats demanded from the start.
  • True to form, in February 2018, the “Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018,” which was signed into law, raised the spending limits for FY 2018 and FY 2019. Nondefense funding was raised $63 billion in FY 2018 and $68 billion in FY 2019.

The judiciary has benefitted from these adjustments over the past five years and is likely to benefit again in FY 2019.

  • In FY 2014, Congress restored the judiciary’s discretionary funding to its pre-sequestration level of $6.516 billion. 
  • In FY 2015, the judiciary received $6.7 billion in discretionary funding, a 2.8 percent increase over the prior year.
  • In FY 2016, the judiciary was funded at $6.78 billion in discretionary funding, a 1.2 percent increase over FY 2015 funding.
  • In FY 2017, the judiciary was funded at $6.9 billion in discretionary funding, a 2.2 % increase over the prior year’s funding.
  • In FY 2018, the judiciary was funded at $7.1 billion in discretionary funding, a 2.7 increase over the prior year’s funding.

Additional information on the judiciary's appropriation for FY 2013 - FY 2018 is available here

FY 2019 Request: $7.25 Billion in Discretionary Funding

On April 18, 2018, judicial representatives presented the judiciary’s FY 2019 funding request of $7.22 billion to the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government. The FY 2019 budget request reflects an overall increase of 3.2 percent to maintain current services and fund priority initiatives. According to the testimony, the judiciary is requesting $95 million for cybersecurity to continue its upgrade of IT protections that it started after cyberattacks in 2015 compromised Office of Personnel Management records. The judiciary also is seeking increases for the defender services program to handle projected caseload; additional funding to improve courthouse security; and funding to update PACTS, a national integrated database that helps probation and pretrial services officers supervise criminal offenders and defendants under community supervision.

The testimony also highlighted the judiciary’s ongoing initiatives to save money. According to the statement, the judiciary recently surpassed its national three percent space reduction goal set in 2013. To date, that initiative has saved the judiciary $25 million in annual rent costs. In addition, the judiciary has worked to cut costs by encouraging court units to share common administrative functions, and over 90 percent of all courts report having formal or informal sharing arrangements of some kind that are lowering their administrative costs.

Congressional Activity

Both chambers are hoping to act on all 12 appropriation bills in a timely fashion this year in an effort to return to “regular” order and avoid a showdown months before the mid-term elections. While this has been an unrealized goal time and again, it might be achievable this year if both parties adhere to the spending caps established by the Bipartisan Budget Control Act of 2018 (see above) and do not use the appropriation process to try to enact immigration reform.

On June 13, 2018, the House Appropriations Committee approved $7.2 billion for the judiciary as part of its FY 2019 Financial Services and General Government Appropriations bill. The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee followed suit on June 19 and provided $7.25 billion for the judiciary. These initial actions bode well for the judiciary.


Key Points

  • The ABA urges Congress, when making budgeting decisions, to take into consideration that the federal judiciary is essential to preserving constitutional democracy and freedom.
  • The ABA urges Congress to protect the federal judiciary from future deficit reduction and to increase funding for FY 2019 to the Judiciary's requested amount of $7.22 billion in discretionary appropriations, a 3.2 percent funding increase over its FY 2018 level.



Denise A. Cardman, Deputy Director

Governmental Affairs Office

American Bar Association