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Judicial Conference Reports Show Sequestration Impact, Detail Court Space Savings

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Federal Judiciary leaders today received a report on the impact of reduced funding due to sequestration – which cut court staff and delayed cases – and a separate report on an aggressive multi-faceted strategy to reduce the costs of court space.

Speaking at the biannual meeting of the Judicial Conference of the United States, Judge Julia Gibbons, chair of the Conference’s Budget Committee, reported:     

  • There are nearly 15 percent fewer staff on-board in clerks’ offices, probation and pretrial services offices, and court of appeals units than there were two-and-a-half years ago;
  • The number of on-board staff is now equivalent to on-board staffing levels in the courts in 1997;
  • Federal Defender Office staffing levels declined by more than eleven percent since the beginning of FY 13; and
  • Federal defender staff were furloughed about 150,000 hours in FY 13.

These staffing losses have resulted in the slower processing of civil cases. Between October 1, 2011, and September 30, 2013, the median time from filing to disposition of civil cases  increased by over 16 percent, from 7.3 months to 8.5 months.

“This directly impacts individuals, small businesses, and corporations seeking to resolve disputes in the federal courts,” Judge Gibbons said. “Had it remained in place, we believe sequestration would have done significant harm to commerce, orderly and prompt resolution of disputes, public safety, and Constitutional rights ranging from effective representation by counsel for criminal defendants to jury trials.”

While the Judiciary received some relief in its FY 14 budget, it followed several years of nearly flat funding. Further, while the non-defense discretionary budget cap increased by $24 billion in FY 14, the corresponding cap available to Congress for FY 15 will increase by only $1 billion. Consequently, Judge Gibbons said, the Judiciary must continue its decade-long cost containment program.

“Such initiatives are likely to be controversial, difficult to implement quickly, and potentially would result in significant change within the Judiciary,” Judge Gibbons said. “Nevertheless, we strongly believe that future budget constraints... dictate that cost containment must continue to be a top priority of the...Judiciary as a whole.”

Judge D. Brooks Smith, chair of the Conference’s Committee on Space and Facilities, reported on steps that have been taken and will be taken to reduce courthouse space, a leading component of the Judiciary’s cost containment effort.

“Let there be no  mistake, achieving the space reduction goals of the Judicial Conference will not be easy,” Judge Smith said. “But those goals, while ambitious, are realistic and attainable. Reaching the finish line by the end of FY 2018 requires that we get a quick and smooth start. That’s why our committee has established what we recognize is an aggressive schedule for the steps required in early 2014.”

Judge Smith detailed the Judiciary’s multi-faceted strategy for reducing the costs of space:

  • Imposing a “no net new policy,” which provides that any increase in square footage within a circuit needs to be offset by an equivalent reduction in square footage, with the exception of new work approved by Congress;
  • Setting a target of a three percent space reduction by the end of FY 18;
  • Implementing a space and rent management plan in each circuit;
  • Developing an Integrated Workplace Initiative that will reduce space by maximizing technology to provide greater flexibility as to where and when work is performed;
  • Closing, where appropriate, non-resident facilities; and
  • Studying and identifying opportunities for cost saving in court libraries.

“In my 25-plus years as an Article III judge, I have been enormously proud to work side-by-side with colleagues who have recognized so many times that public service often means sacrifice,” Judge Smith said. “As I have met and talked with judges and court professionals across the country in recent months, it has been heartening to see that same commitment applied to the need to reduce our space footprint.”

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.