May 2011:
Budget Cuts Could Hurt the Federal Courts

Washington Watch | May 2011
By Bruce Moyer

The outcome of the budget talks in Washington could have big consequences for the federal courts. Congress approves the federal courts’ budget and appropriates money for the judiciary to operate. Steep across-the-board funding cuts in the federal budget could dramatically affect how much money is made available for the operation of our federal
courts.

The Federal Bar Association is working hard to convince Congress to avoid imposing deep funding cuts on the federal judiciary. In a recent letter to congressional leaders, FBA President Ashley Belleau urged restraint in reducing the federal courts’ budget. A group of FBA circuit vice presidents met with staff of congressional offices in late April to continue to make the case.

The judicial branch’s FY 2012 funding request is its smallest requested percentage increase on record. That request is dramatized by the exceptional workload challenges generated by increased bankruptcy case filings, significant caseloads in courts along the country’s southwestern border, and increased workload in the probation and pretrial services offices.

To understand the federal courts’ funding situation, let’s put the budget of the federal courts into perspective. The judiciary’s annual appropriation from Congress is tiny. It makes up about two-tenths of 1 percent of the federal budget. By way of comparison, large agencies in the executive branch receive appropriations that are many times more than that received by the entire third branch.

In FY 2010, the federal judiciary received nearly $7 billion to fund its various operations throughout the United States, including the U.S. Supreme Court; appellate, district, and bankruptcy courts; probation and pretrial services operations; the jury system; court security services; defender services to provide legal representation to indigent criminal defendants; the U.S. Sentencing Commission; the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts; and the Federal Judicial Center.

A huge chunk of the judiciary’s budget—approximately 80 percent—is allocated to salaries and rent. A significant portion of that is paid to the General Services Administration (GSA) to pay for leasing courthouse space, even though the federal government already owns these buildings. The judiciary also must make annual payments to the GSA for needed alterations and cyclical building maintenance. Although the GSA received stimulus money under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the judiciary did not receive any money for its own use.

The judiciary does not have programs or grants that it can cut in order to reduce its costs. Nor can the judiciary turn away the cases that arrive on its doorstep. The courts’ operations also are deeply labor-intensive; consequently, major cuts in the judiciary’s budget will require staffing cuts in those places where the greatest numbers of court employees work—in the clerks’, probation, and pretrial services offices.

The last time the federal courts experienced deep budget cuts was in 2004. Those reductions resulted in a 6 percent decrease in the courts’ workforce. Large budget cuts in 2012 could replay the 2004 experience:


  • The construction of new courthouses and major renovation projects likely would be suspended or significantly reduced.
  • Security improvements to better ensure the safety of judges, court staff, and the public are likely to be forestalled. 
  • The sentencing process could be jeopardized because of the lack of sufficient probation officers available to help judges fashion appropriate sentences. 
  • Payment of court-appointed counsel for indigent defendants, as required by the Constitution, could become unavailable. 
  • Testing and supervision of released prisoners may be reduced, resulting in a degradation of public safety. 
  • Victim advocacy responsibilities, including the determination of monetary losses and the collection of victim restitution and criminal fines, could be impaired. 
  • The costs of pretrial detention of criminal defendants could continue to increase, affecting the right of speedy prosecution. 
  • Jury payments for civil trials will likely run out, throwing into jeopardy the availability of trial by jury.

The FBA will continue to work with the judiciary to prevent these cuts. As FBA President Ashley Belleau recently told Congress: “The members of our association join with all Americans in their concern about growing federal debt and the need to assure a sustainable fiscal path for our nation. However, deep spending cuts in the federal budget, especially across-the-board cuts, would have a horrific impact on the federal court system and the administration of justice.”

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

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