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With Friday Closures, Curtailed Service, Sequestration Hits Courts

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Sequestration reduced the Judiciary’s overall funding levels by almost $350 million—a 5 percent cut affecting people, programs, and court operations. Each court decides how to implement the funding cuts, but it is anticipated that nationwide up to 2,000 employees could be laid off this fiscal year, or face furloughs. 

In testimony (pdf) before House appropriators, Judge Julia Gibbons, chair of the Judicial Conference Budget Committee, warned that sequestration’s cuts will impact public safety with fewer probation officers to supervise criminal offenders released in communities, and funding for drug testing and mental health treatment cut 20 percent. In the defender services program, federal defender attorney staffing levels will decline, which will result in delays in appointing defense counsel for defendants. Payments to private attorneys appointed under the Criminal Justice Act also will be delayed as the end of the fiscal year approaches.

The Judiciary continues the cost-containment efforts that, over the last decade, have helped limit the growth in the Judiciary’s budget. Real savings have been achieved in rent, personnel, and information technology. But as Chief Justice John Roberts noted in his Year End Report on the Judiciary (pdf), 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.

As Judiciary leaders cautioned House appropriators about sequestration’s long-term effects, threatened courthouse closures and employee furloughs are becoming a reality.

Among those courts, is the District of Colorado. Last week Chief Judge Marcia S. Krieger issued an order (pdf) limiting the scheduling of criminal trials and hearings in federal district court due to budgetary constraints and furloughs. Beginning Friday, April 26, 2013 and continuing through September 30, 2013, no hearings or trials in criminal cases (other than mandatory first appearances before a magistrate judge) will be heard on Fridays. According to Clerk of Court Jeff Colwell, the order was a coordinated effort that took into consideration furloughs in the Federal Public Defenders’ office, as well as mandated furloughs in the U.S. Marshals Services and the U.S. Attorneys office.

"Because the participation of the professionals in these offices is integral to proper adjudication of criminal matters before the Court, coordination in scheduling of criminal trials and hearings is necessary to ensure access to the Court by all parties and the public, appropriate representation to criminal defendants and necessary courthouse security," the order read.

One of the busiest trial courts in the country, the Central District of California, will furlough staff and reduce court services on seven Fridays, from April through August in three of its divisions: Western (Los Angeles), Southern (Santa Ana) and Eastern (Riverside.) The courthouses will be open, but the clerk’s office will be closed except for the criminal intake section and specified emergency civil filings.

Court staff furloughs of one day a month, beginning in May, are planned in the Northern District of California. The court will close the San Francisco, San Jose, and Eureka federal courthouses on the first Friday of each month, and close the Oakland courthouse the first Monday of the month. The court also has accelerated implementation of technological initiatives in its operations, hoping that will save money.

"These efforts will include the expansion of our e-filing program to include attorney admissions paperwork, case-initiating documents in new civil cases, reports from Probation and Pretrial Services, and orders for transcripts from court reporters," said Clerk of Court Rich Wieking.

Beginning in May, the District of Delaware will stop hearing all but absolutely essential criminal proceedings on Fridays. "In light of the impact sequestration is having on the U.S. Marshals Service, the U.S. Attorney's and Federal Public Defender Office, the court will reschedule any existing criminal events and not schedule any new criminal proceedings on Friday, with the exception of emergencies," said Clerk of Court John Cerino.

In the Western District of New York, the court also will not hold criminal proceedings on Fridays. According to Clerk of Court Michael J. Roemer, that isn't only because of the 22 furlough days the Federal Defenders Office has planned. "It's also because of the 14 days the U.S. Attorneys Office has scheduled its attorneys, and the 11 days the U.S. Marshals Service will furlough its Marshals. Although the court itself does not plan to furlough employees, we are simply trying to accommodate the other agencies in implementing their furlough plans."

To accommodate furloughs in the offices of the Federal Defender, U.S. Attorneys, and U.S. Marshals Service, judges in the Eastern District of Missouri will not schedule any criminal proceedings on the second and fourth Fridays of each month, beginning April 26 and running through the end of fiscal year 2013.  

From April 26 through the end of the fiscal year, the District of Utah will limit its Friday calendar, holding criminal hearings every other Friday to accommodate short-staffed U.S. Attorney’s Office, Federal Defenders Office and U.S. Marshals Service who have furloughed staff.

"We set up the schedule to make it a little easier for these agencies to close their offices on these days, except for a skeleton staff," said Clerk of Court Mark Jones. "We haven’t had to furlough staff in the clerk’s office yet, because we’ve cut back through attrition, early retirements and by not filling positions. But we will have to take more drastic measures if additional cuts are made."

In the Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York, rather than eliminate a day of holding court, bankruptcy judges will stop hearings at 5:00 p.m. sharp.

"This court receives cases which are high profile in nature, many of which affect international parties," said Bankruptcy Clerk of Court Vito Genna. "The Court often goes beyond the regular work schedule, with some hearings ending late evening and often close to midnight." However, over the last two years, the bankruptcy court has lost the equivalent in funding of 26 employees. While it has no plans at this time to furlough employees due to conserving funds and the assistance from the district court with additional funds, it may need to downsize further before the end of the fiscal year.