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Federal Judiciary Braces for Broad Impact of Budget Sequestration

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Stating that sequestration has put the federal Judiciary "in uncharted territory," a federal judge told the Judicial Conference today that "we face a budget crisis that is unprecedented, one that is not likely to end in the near-term." 

"We believe we have done all we can to minimize the impact of sequestration, but a cut of this magnitude, particularly so late in the fiscal year, will affect every facet of court operations," Judge Julia Gibbons, chair of the Conference’s Budget Committee, told the Conference at its biannual meeting in Washington. She said sequestration will "impact the general public as well as individuals and businesses looking for relief in the courts."

The impact of sequestration is particularly severe for the Judiciary because its budget is so heavily driven by people – whether it’s the cost of judges and court staff and the space required to do their jobs, the cost of defense attorneys, jurors, and the courtroom space they require, or the cost of court security officers and the equipment needed to make courthouses safe. As a result, when sequestration occurs, especially at mid-year, there is little recourse for the courts but to layoff or furlough staff. Sequestration reduced the judiciary overall funding levels by almost $350 million – a 5 percent cut affecting people, programs, and court operations.

Public Safety: There will be fewer probation officers to supervise criminal offenders released into the community. Funding for drug testing and mental health treatment will be cut 20 percent.

Cases Delayed: With fewer available clerks’ office staff and the need to focus on criminal cases, there could be significant delays in the processing of civil and bankruptcy cases, which could adversely affect economic recovery.

Court Security: There will be a 30 percent cut in funding for court security systems and equipment and court security officers will work fewer hours, exposing courts and those who use them to possible vulnerabilities.

Federal Defenders: Staffing levels of federal public defenders will decline, which could result in delays in the appointment of defense counsel, and payments to attorneys appointed under the Criminal Justice Act could be delayed several weeks at the end of the year.

Information Technology: Deep cuts will be made for IT programs that the courts depend on for daily case processing and which have enabled the Judiciary to achieve efficiencies and limit budget growth.

Under the Judiciary’s decentralized management system, each court will decide how to implement many of the funding cuts. It is anticipated that nationwide up to 2,000 employees could be laid off this fiscal year, or face furloughs for one day a pay period – the equivalent of a 10 percent pay cut. These staffing losses would come on top of the loss of over 1,800 court staff over the last 18 months, which represents a 9 percent decline. Current court staffing levels are equivalent to March 2005 levels. By the end of September, staffing levels could be another 5 to 10 percent below current levels.

"Reductions of this magnitude strike at the heart of our entire system of justice and spread throughout the country. The longer the sequestration stays in place, the more severe will be its impact on the courts and those who use them," Judge Gibbons told the Judicial Conference. "These actions are unsustainable, difficult, and painful to implement. Indeed, the Judiciary cannot continue to operate at sequestration funding levels without seriously compromising the Constitutional mission of the federal courts." 

In other action, the Conference recognized both the fiscal challenges of the time and the continuing need for new judgeships to address ever increasing caseloads. Since the last comprehensive judgeship bill was enacted more than 20 years ago, the number of cases filed in the U.S. courts of appeals increased by 34 percent and the number of cases filed in the district courts increased by 39 percent – civil filings grew by 32 percent and criminal filings by 67 percent.

Today the Conference adopted the results of the biennial judgeship survey, which was conducted by its Judicial Resources Committee and identified the need for six new appellate and 85 district judgeships. However, in submitting its recommendations, the Resources Committee acknowledged the dire fiscal realities facing the nation and that prioritization of judgeships will have to occur. A Judicial Conference committee has conducted a formal survey of court judgeship needs since 1964. Beginning in 1980, the survey has been conducted every year.

The 26-member Judicial Conference is the policy-making body for the federal court system. The Chief Justice serves as its presiding officer. Its members are the chief judges of the 13 courts of appeals, a district judge from each of the 12 geographic circuits, and the chief judge of the Court of International Trade. The Conference meets twice a year to consider administrative and policy issues affecting the court system, and to make recommendations to Congress concerning legislation involving the Judicial Branch.