August 2011:
Huge Budget Cuts Looming for Federal Courts

Washington Watch | August 2011
By Bruce Moyer

The federal judiciary faces unprecedented budget cuts next year. A budget deal reached by the President and Congress could impose even harsher medicine for the courts and all areas of the federal budget.

The FY2012 funding bill winding its way through the U.S. House of Representatives would provide about 2 percent less in funds than the federal courts received this year. The funding bill proposed by the House would provide the federal judiciary with $6.76 billion—a net $143 million below this year's level. The bill trims most judiciary programs, while providing small but necessary increases to court security, Supreme Court police, juror fees, and defender services. The federal courts' fiscal year, like the rest of the federal government, begins on October 1.

The House's funding bill hits the federal courts' account for salaries and expenses especially hard, providing funding at 4.3 percent below FY2011. Personnel costs account for the lion's share of the federal courts' budget. The reduced funding, combined with a recent decline in court revenue from bankruptcy filing fees, could trigger significant staffing losses in the courts in 2012. As many as 5,000 court staff could be affected through a combination of layoffs, furloughs, buyouts, and early outs.

The Senate will need to hurry up in September to complete funding action for the federal courts. Over the course of the summer, while the House was moving ahead with its appropriation bills, the Senate was awaiting the outcome of the debt ceiling talks. Although those negotiations were still pending as this issue of The Federal Lawyer went to press, the outlook remains grim. The best case is for a hard freeze on FY2011 funding levels, and even that could cause a potential loss of approximately 1,200 court staff, according to projections by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

The prospects for the construction of federal courthouses are not promising either. The federal judiciary had requested $558 million in FY2012 to pay for five new courthouse construction projects that are included in the courts' five-year construction plan. The President's proposed FY2012 budget did not request funding for new courthouse projects, and the House bill does not include any funding for new courthouse construction. The only funding for courthouses that exists in the House bill addresses security deficiencies in existing court facilities where physical alterations can be made.

In relative terms, the federal judiciary's annual appropriation from Congress is quite small: only about two-tenths of 1 percent (0.2 percent) of the federal budget. By way of comparison, the FY2010 appropriation for the State Department and for state and international operations was more than seven times greater than the federal judiciary's appropriation, and the FY2010 appropriation for the Department of Homeland Security was more than six times greater than the judiciary's appropriation. Large agencies in the executive branch routinely receive appropriations that are many times more than the funding that the third branch of government gets. Funding for the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan exceeds the judiciary's entire annual appropriation every two weeks.

Earlier this spring, the Federal Bar Association urged House and Senate appropriators to fund the federal courts in FY2012 at the level requested by the Judicial Conference. In those letters, FBA President Ashley Belleau pointed out that the judiciary's request for FY2012 funding reflects that branch's smallest requested percentage increase on record. Its request is underscored by the exceptional workload challenges generated by increased bankruptcy case filings, significant caseloads in courts along the southwesternborder, and the workload in the probation and pretrial services offices.

The impact of declining budgets on the federal courts trails the dire situation already being felt in some states. In Jefferson County, Ala., for example, court officials are searching for funds to maintain the security personnel needed to keep the courthouses open. According to the Birmingham News, the presiding judge for Jefferson County is soliciting funds from the Birmingham Bar Foundation to help pay jurors after he received assurances from the Alabama Judicial Inquiry Commission that he may raise money from private sources through the charitable arm of the Birmingham Bar Association. Although donors to the fund will remain anonymous in order to avoid any appearance of impropriety, Jefferson County's presiding judge, Scott Vowell, expressed his dismay at what he considers a "terrible, terrible, way to have to run the courts."

Bruce Moyer is government relations counsel for the FBA.
© 2011 Bruce Moyer. All rights reserved.

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