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October 01, 2013

ABA concern growing for federal judiciary as budget cuts loom

ABA President James R. Silkenat told members of Congress this month that “funding cuts mandated by sequestration pose the greatest challenge to the fair administration of justice and the timely resolution of disputes.” Silkenat emphasized that, after a year of working with the courts under sequestration, lawyers now know firsthand that the timely administration of justice has been severely strained by these funding cuts. He warned that the courts could be subject to even more severe across-the-board cuts if the House and Senate do not agree on a budget that meets discretionary spending caps mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011 or enact an alternative bipartisan deficit reduction plan.

Silkenat was appearing at a forum convened Oct. 8 by members of the House Judiciary Committee that was held during a standoff on fiscal year 2014 negotiations that led to a government shutdown from Oct. 1 through Oct. 16. The forum addressed the effects on access to justice of the shutdown and sequestration. The fiscal year 2013 sequestration mandated by the Budget Control Act required across-the-board funding cuts throughout the government, including a $350 million decrease in the federal judiciary’s funding from March through September of this year.

As a result of sequestration, courts continued to downsize and furlough staff in clerks’ offices and in probation and pretrial services offices, resulting in a loss of over 2,700 staff members as of the end of September. The judiciary estimates that if funding is not increased for the rest of fiscal year 2014, staffing will have to be reduced by an estimated 1,000 additional employees.

The Defender Services Program, which provides counsel to indigent criminal defendants, has been especially impacted by the cuts. That program’s $52 million decrease resulted in an 8 percent reduction in staff and 19,700 furlough days in federal defender offices across the country, as well as suspension of pay to Criminal Justice Act (CJA) panel attorneys for the last two weeks of the fiscal year.

If funding for defender services is not increased above its pre-sequestration fiscal year 2013 level, payments to CJA attorneys will be reduced by $15/hour, and payments for work performed during the last four weeks of fiscal year 2014 will have to be deferred until the following fiscal year.

The government shutdown ended with legislation providing $51 million in additional funding for the judiciary. Half of that amount will be used to pay CJA attorneys for cases handled in fiscal year 2013.

According to Silkenat, members of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees “got it right” earlier this year when both committees approved

fiscal year 2014 bills that would increase funding for the federal judiciary by 5.5 percent and 7.5 percent, respectively, over fiscal year 2013 sequestration levels. Al-though neither bill reached the full House or Senate for a vote, Silkenat emphasized that the committee members “sent a clear message” to their colleagues that the judiciary needs to be treated as a funding priority.

The ABA president has asked all members of the association to become involved in the ongoing effort to secure adequate resources for the federal judiciary by contacting their individual members of Congress.

 “Lawyers, in particular, have the knowledge and responsibility to explain why a fully operational federal judiciary is a core component of our government and essential to the preservation of our personal liberties and constitutional government based on the rule of law,” he wrote in his first communication as ABA president.

In related action, the Judicial Conference of the United States, the national policymaking body for the federal courts, took the unusual step of writing to the president of the United States.

 “Over the years, with the support of Congress and the White House, the judiciary has been able to forge and maintain one of the most respected justice systems in the world,” the conference wrote. “We are greatly concerned, however, that our constitutional duties, public safety, and the quality of our nation’s justice system will be profoundly compromised if sufficient funding is not provided to the judiciary in FY 2014.”

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