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April 01, 2013

House panel considers impact of court cuts

Representatives of the federal judiciary warned Congress last month that the sequestration cuts in the federal judiciary’s budget will have a “devastating effect on federal court operations nationwide.”

Judge Julia Gibbons, chair of the Budget Committee of the Judicial Conference,  emphasized in March 20 testimony to the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government that the judiciary cannot continue to operate at sequestration funding levels without seriously compromising the constitutional mission of the federal courts.

Gibbons estimated that as a result of the $350 million reduction in judiciary funding, up to 2,000 employees could be laid off this fiscal year or face furloughs that would result in a 10 percent pay cut. She also said that sequestration will impact public safety because there will be fewer probation officers, a 20 percent cut in drug testing and mental treatment programs, a 30 percent cut in funding for court security, and a reduction on federal defender attorney staffing levels. Also impacted will be the court’s information technology programs used for daily case processing.

“Unlike many executive branch entities, we do not have programs or grants that we can cut in response to a budget shortfall,” Gibbons said. “The entire scope and volume of our work are attributable to carrying out functions assigned to us by the Constitution and by statutes. We look to Congress to recognize the uncontrollable nature of our workload and provide the resources needed to perform this essential work.”

Gibbons expressed special concerns about the Defender Services Program, which provides representation to indigent defendants under the Criminal Justice Act. Significant staff furloughs and delays in paying private attorneys appointed under the program are expected.

The testimony echoed concerns raised March 1 by ABA President Laurel G.  Bellows, American Association for Justice President Alice McLarty, and Mary Massaron Ross, president of DRI -- the Voice of the Defense Bar. The three leaders joined in a statement warning of the impact of the sequestration cuts on both federal and state courts.

“Severe and indiscriminate federal court budget reductions through sequestration combined with chronically anemic state funding for courts threaten access for every American and put court petitioners, staff and judges in physical jeopardy,” they said.

During the hearing, Gibbons also presented the judiciary’s fiscal year 2014 budget request of $7,221,707,000. This amount reflects a 2.6 percent increase over the fiscal year 2013 funding levels as originally enacted in the continuing resolution that funded the government through March 31 and is the “minimum amount required to meet our constitutional and statutory responsibilities.” 

Supreme Court Justices Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer also weighed in on the judiciary budget at a March 14 hearing before the same subcommittee.

They emphasized that the judiciary’s budget request amounts to just two-tenths of one cent of every tax dollar spent but that the judiciary’s function, the administration of justice, produces expenses that are beyond the judiciary’s own power to regulate.

The fiscal year 2014 budget request for the Supreme Court, which is one percent of the entire federal judiciary budget, is $74,838,000, a 3 percent reduction from fiscal year 2013.

The ABA, which is highlighting the need for adequate federal court resources during ABA Day in Washington April 16-18, is urging Congress to protect the federal judiciary from future deficit reduction and increase overall funding for fiscal year 2014 to no less than the courts’ original fiscal year 2013 appropriation amount.