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February 01, 2013

Chief justice focuses on court resources

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., issuing his 2012 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary, highlighted the judiciary’s strategy for achieving cost savings in the face of the government’s budget deficit, but he encouraged the president and Congress to be especially attentive to the needs of the judicial branch and provide the resources necessary for its operations.

Roberts said that the judicial branch consumes a miniscule portion of the federal budget. The judiciary – including the Supreme Court, other federal courts, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, and the Federal Judicial Center – received a total fiscal year 2012 appropriation of $6.97 billion, which is two-tenths of 1 percent of the total U.S. budget of $3.7 trillion.

Since 2004, when the Judicial Conference endorsed a cost-containment strategy, Roberts said the judiciary has focused on three principal targets for realizing savings: rent, personnel expenses, and information technology. The most significant cost-containment success has been in controlling rent costs, he said, and the courts are continuing to look for ways to achieve greater savings in personnel costs. He noted significant savings through consolidation of information technology.

“The judiciary has been doing its part to carefully manage its tiny portion of the federal budget,” Roberts said. He explained, however that because the judiciary has already pursued cost-containment so aggressively, it will become increasingly difficult to economize further without reducing the quality of judicial services.

He said that virtually all of the judiciary’s core functions are constitutionally and statutorily required, and unlike executive branch agencies, the courts do not have discretionary programs they can eliminate or projects they can postpone.

“A significant and prolonged shortfall in judicial funding would inevitably result in the delay or denial of justice for the people the courts serve,” Roberts cautioned.

Vital resource needs for the judiciary include appointment of an adequate number of judges to keep current on pending cases; twenty-seven of the existing judicial vacancies at the close of 2012 were judicial emergencies. He urged nomination and confirmation of highly qualified candidate to fill those vacancies.

Turning to the court workload in 2012, Roberts noted the following:

  • filings in regional courts of appeals grew 4 percent to 57,501;
  • the number of persons under post-conviction supervision rose 2 percent to 132,340;
  • total case filings in the district courts declined 5 percent to 372,563;
  • cases opened in the pretrial services system fell four percent to 109,242;  and
  • filings in bankruptcy courts dropped 14 percent to 1,261,140.

The total number of cases filed in the Supreme Court decreased 1.8 percent, from 7,857 in the 2010 term to 7,713 in the 2011 term. During the 2011 term, 79 cases were argued and 73 cases were disposed of in 64 signed opinions.

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