Federal Court Funding

Last Updated: 12/20/2019


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 2018, over 415,000 cases were filed in district courts and courts of appeal; over 730,000 petitions were filed in bankruptcy courts; approximately 223,000 persons were placed under pre-trial or post-conviction supervision; and 232,000 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 after passage of the BCA, 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 discretionary 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 2020.

  • 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% increase over the prior year.
  • In FY 2016, the Judiciary was funded at $6.78 billion in discretionary funding, a 1.2% 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.
  • In FY 2019, the Judiciary was funded at $7.26 billion in discretionary funding, a 2.1% increase over the prior year's funding.

Additional information on the Judiciary's appropriation for FY 2013 - FY 2019 is available here.  

FY 2020 Request: $7.65 Billion in Discretionary Funding

The Judiciary's FY 2020 discretionary budget request of $7.6 billion is approximately a 4.5 percent increase over the Judiciary's FY 2019 appropriation of $7.26 billion. The FY 2020 request is accessible here

According to the FY 2020 Congressional Budget Summary, prepared by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts in February 2019, the $350 million requested increase in discretionary spending will be used as follows (pp ii-iii):

"For the courts' Salaries and Expenses account, the Judiciary requests $5.4 billion, an increase of $230 million (4.5 percent) in discretionary appropriations over the FY 2019 assumed level. This request funds current services, as well as a number of critical new investments, including six additional full-time magistrate judges, required infrastructure associated with ongoing courthouse construction projects, and the replacement of two critical information technology systems involving financial disclosure reporting and personnel/payroll projections. The request includes court support staffing requirements in FY 2020 to support projected workload. 

For the Defender Services account, the Judiciary requests $1.2 billion, an increase of $77.2 million (6.7 percent) over the FY 2019 assumed level. This request includes sufficient funding to continue implementation of the federal defender organization staffing formula and to support projected panel attorney representations in FY 2020. The request also includes a $7 per hour above-inflation increase to the non-capital panel attorney hourly rate (from $142 per hour to $149 per hour). With this proposed increase, the non-capital panel attorney hourly rate would be at the projected statutory maximum. Finally, this request includes additional positions for program oversight and training, as well as funding for necessary information technology upgrades.

For the Court Security account, the Judiciary requests $641.3 million, an increase of $34 million (5.6 percent) over the assumed FY 2019 level. The request includes funding for the continued implementation of the physical access control systems replacement strategy, as well as security infrastructure and additional court security officers (CSOs) for new courthouses. In addition, the FY 2020 request includes funding for the implementation of a new video management system replacement plan, continued phased implementation of the revised CSO staffing standards, and additional district supervisors for the CSO program. 

For the Fees of Jurors and Commissioners account, the Judiciary seeks $51.9 million, an increase of $1.1 million (2.2 percent) over the FY 2019 assumed level. The FY 2020 request is sufficient to fund all projected petit and grand juror requirements."

Congressional Activity

Budget Caps. The appropriations process once again got bogged down over months of difficult negotiations with regard to overriding the spending caps for FY 2020 and FY 2021 that were passed as part of the BCA, the 2011 deficit reduction law that both parties have come to resent. Without a deal to raise spending, all discretionary spending would have had to be cut 10% below the current levels for FY 2020.

The House Budget Committee approved a draft bill early in the process to increase spending caps for both defense and nondefense programs for FY 2020 in roughly equal measure. (Democrats have long insisted on "parity" in the treatment of defense and nondefense spending increases, while the Republicans want to raise the spending cap only for defense.) The draft bill would have added about $88 billion to both defense and nondefense spending limits in FY 2020, and another $90 billion each to those limits in FY 2021. While never enacted, the bill set the stage for the House to approve 10 of the 12 annual appropriation bills, including the Financial Services bill, which provides funding for the Judiciary.

The Senate dismissed it as a non-starter and Senate appropriators declined to move any bills until an agreement could be reached on spending levels for FY 2020 and lifting the debt ceiling. After months of negotiations, new spending caps were agreed to by the House and Senate and on August 2, the deal, embodied in H.R. 3877, the Bipartisan Budget Act, was signed into law. The two-year budget deal suspends the debt limit through July 31, 2021, and raises the spending caps for FY 2020 and FY 2021 by $324 billion over the amount originally set under the BCA. Unlike the original proposal offered by the House, the spending increases are not divided equally between defense and non-defense spending.

While the deal delighted almost no one, it gave both parties something to cheer about. Republicans applauded the two years of spending increases for defense, including a nearly 3.1 percent increase in fiscal 2020, compared to this year’s enacted level, and Democrats cheered the end of across-the-board cuts known as sequester that threatened their domestic funding priorities. The topline discretionary spending amount for FY 2020 is $1.37 trillion - $938 billion for defense spending and $632 billion for nondefense spending. 

Justices Testify. Justices Alito and Kagan testified at a hearing on March 7, 2019, before the House Appropriations Financial Services Subcommittee with regard to the FY 2020 budget request for the Supreme Court, which is a separate line item in the Judiciary's budget. They requested $87.7 million in discretionary spending for the Supreme Court, about $6.7 million over the FY 2019 appropriation, an increase that Justice Alito said is necessary to cover the continuation of existing activities. (Justice Alito's written statement on behalf of both of them is available here).

House and Senate Appropriations for the Judiciary. On June 26, the House passed its $24.95 billion Financial Services appropriations bill. It includes $7.9 billion in discretionary funding for the Judiciary. The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government approved its FY 2020 spending bill on September 27. The $24.196 billion funding measure includes $7.418 billion in discretionary funding for the Federal Judiciary, which is $234 million above the FY 2019 enacted level.

Continuing Resolutions Prevent a Government Shutdown. With spending limits set just before the August recess, and not one appropriations bill passed by both chambers, Congress reverted to its usual pattern of passing a short-term continuing resolution to avoid a government shutdown on September 30, 2019, which marks the end of the government's 2019 fiscal year. H.R. 4378, the stopgap funding measure, was signed into law at the end of September. It extended current funding levels through November 21.

Lawmakers made little progress in the Fall and were not even able to agree on how to divvy up the $1.37 trillion in discretionary spending among the 12 two appropriation bills prior to the expiration of the stopgap funding measure. Consequently, lawmaker passed another stopgap measure (PL 116-69) to keep the government running through December 20 while they continued to negotiate.

A major stumbling block was finally lifted in late November, when top negotiators set separate spending levels (also known as 302bs) for each of the appropriation subcommittees. Though the House had passed 10 of the 12 fiscal 2020 bills and the Senate four, lawmakers hadn't been able to reach a final deal on any of them as they awaited the deal on the top-line numbers.

Final FY 2020 Spending Bills Enacted. Congress and the White House agreed to a FY 2020 spending deal the week of December 16, divided up into two packages (HR 1158, HR 1865).

The House passed the measures on December 16, and the Senate cleared the bills two days later. President Donald Trump signed them into law December 20, hours before the second stopgap funding measure expired.

The Judiciary received $7.487 billion in discretionary funding, just slightly higher than the amount approved by the Senate Appropriations Financil Services subcommittee in September. This represents a $234 million increase over the FY 2019 enacted level. This will provide sufficient funding for the federal courts to conduct its business.  

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.
  • ABA policies on federal court funding may be accessed here


Denise A. Cardman, Deputy Director
Governmental Affairs Office
American Bar Association