Federal Court Funding

Last Updated: 12/31/2020


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 2019, over 438,000 cases were filed in district courts and courts of appeal; over 776,000 petitions were filed in bankruptcy courts; approximately 237,000 persons were placed under pre-trial or post-conviction supervision; and 253,000 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 last two years of the spending caps for FY 2020 and FY 2021 were also undone after months of wrangling on August 2, 2019, when H.R. 3877, the Bipartisan Budget Act, was signed into law. The two-year budget deal suspended the debt limit through July 31 ,2021 and raised the spending caps for FY 2020 and FY 2021 by $324 billion over the amount originally set under the BCA. The spending increases are not divided equally between defense and non-defense spending.

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.
  • In FY 2020, the Judiciary received $7.487 billion in discretionary funding, a 3.2% increase over the prior year’s funding.
  • In FY 2021, the Judiciary received $7.8 billion in discretionary funding, a 4.4% increase of the prior year’s funding 

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

 116th Congress Funding Highlights

1st Session

Justices Testify. Justices Alito and Kagan testified at a hearing on March 7, 2019, before the House Appropriations Financial Services Subcommittee regarding 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. Justice Alito's written statement is available here. In a break with tradition, no other testimony was solicited from the Judiciary.

House and Senate Appropriations for the Judiciary. On June 26, 2019, the House passed its Financial Services appropriations bill, which included $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, and it  included $7.418 billion in discretionary funding for the Judiciary.

Final FY 2020 Spending Bills Enacted. With spending limits set just before the August 2019 recess, Congress reverted to its usual pattern of passing a series of short-term continuing resolutions to avoid a government shutdown on September 30, 2019, which marks the end of the government's 2019 fiscal year.  Following days of intense negotiations,  a FY 2020 spending deal comprised of two minibus bills (HR 1158HR 1865)  were signed into law by President Donald Trump on December 20, 2019, just hours before the final stopgap funding measure expired.

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

2nd Session

The Judiciary's FY 2021 discretionary budget request of almost $7.8 billion was approximately a 4.4 percent increase over the Judiciary's FY 2020 appropriation of $7.49 billion. The FY 2021 request is accessible here

Judiciary Representatives Testify Before Congress. On February 26, 2020, James Duff, Director, Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts and The Honorable John W. Lungstrum, Chair, Judicial Conference Committee on the Budget, presented the Judiciary’s FY 2021   budget request to the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government. Their statements are accessible here: Duff Opening Statement; Lungstrum Opening Statement

The Judiciary’s budget request for enhanced court security recognized the need for enhanced security. “For the Court Security account, the Judiciary requests $664.0 million, an increase of $24.8 million (3.9 percent) over the enacted FY 2020 level. The request includes additional funding for physical access control systems; security infrastructure and additional CSOs for new courthouses; the phased implementation of a cyclical replacement program for video management systems and screening equipment; and additional contract costs to maintain the facility access.” It also requested additional funds for the General Services Administration’s Capital Security Program, which provides funding to address security deficiencies in existing courthouse buildings.

House Appropriations Committee Action. On July 20, 2020, the House Appropriations Committee approved the recommendation of its Financial Services and General Government subcommittee that the Judiciary receive $7,773,341,000 in discretionary funding for FY 2020. The accompanying report explains the proposed appropriation in detail and may be accessed here.

Judiciary Asks for Supplemental Funds to Deal with the Impact of the COVID-19 Crisis. Like other institutions throughout the country, the operations of the federal courts have been severely disrupted by the pandemic. Courthouses closed their doors for months (and are doing so again, as the virus surges this winter) and judges and court personnel   have had to develop new procedures and conduct essential business virtually. In late April 2020, the Judiciary requested emergency supplemental appropriations to help pay for personal protective equipment, enhanced cleaning of court facilities, health screenings at courthouse entrances, expansion of IT infrastructure and videoconferencing equipment, and increased costs associated with changes to probation and pretrial services supervision caused by COVID-19. The Judiciary also proposed converting longstanding temporary Article III and bankruptcy judgeships to permanent status and authorizing additional Article III judgeships to provide the courts with the resources they need to continue operating effectively during and after this pandemic – requests that the ABA strongly supports. The judiciary’s request may be accessed here.

The ABA  supported the Judiciary’s request, and its letter to congressional leaders may be accessed here.

While the Judiciary did not receive additional funds following this request, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) (P.L. 116–136), enacted on March 31, 2020, included $7,500,000 for the Judiciary to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus, domestically or internationally.

 Judiciary Seeks Additional Funding and Other Measures to Enhance Judicial Security. Citing the fatal attack at the home of a federal judge in New Jersey during the summer and increasing threats against federal judges and court personnel, the Judiciary wrote numerous letters to congressional leaders in September and October 2020 asking for enactment of a package of safety measures, including substantive changes to the law and additional funding, that would improve security at judges’ homes and at federal courthouses. Letters to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees requested funding totaling $524 million for the U.S. Marshals Service to install modern home intrusion detection systems in judges’ homes and to hire 1,000 additional deputy U.S. marshals; and for the Federal Protective Service to upgrade exterior security cameras at 650 court facilities nationwide. The U.S. Marshals Service is part of the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies appropriations, and the Federal Protective Service is part of the Homeland Security appropriations.

The ABA supported the judiciary’s funding request. Letters of support to House and Senate leadership may be accessed here:

Read the Senate letter here.

Read the House Leadership letter here.

FY 2021 Omnibus Bill Signed into Law. After a series of continuing resolutions, and once again, within hours of a government shut-down, on December 27, 2020, the President signed into law an omnibus bill that was tied to a COVID-19 stimulus package. The Judiciary received $7.72 billion in discretionary funding, $233.3 million above the FY 2020 enacted level. It includes the following:

• Defender Services – $1.32 billion, an increase of $81.7 million above the FY 2020 level and equal to the budget request.

• Court Security – $664 million, an increase of $24.8 million above the FY 2020 level and equal to the budget request.

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