December 2013: A Glimmer of Hope for Court Funding

Washington Watch | December 2013
By Bruce Moyer

There is guarded optimism that Congress will provide the federal judiciary with funding that prevents a repeat of the budget calamities of the past year. Although that outcome is not yet certain, several signs in the budget picture paint a hopeful outlook.

The agreement in October between the White House and Congress that resulted in the end of the 16-day shutdown also provided two distinct funding supplements for the federal courts. Those rare “bump-ups” in spending were among only six contained in the continuing resolution, or CR, that extended government funding through January 15, 2014. Under the October agreement, Congress and the President by January 15 are expected to reach a final agreement on FY 2014 funding levels for the entire government, including the federal courts. If an agreement is not reached, Congress will need to extend the CR further or risk another shutdown.

Two Promising Budget Anomalies
Federal court officials believe that the two supplements (called “anomalies” in budget-speak) point to a sympathetic understanding by Congress of the courts’ budget woes. Those problems have been compounded by the automatic budget cuts, called sequestration, reduced judiciary funding by $350 million, or about 5 percent. That resulted in significant reductions in the courts’ workforce, defender services, probation and pretrial services, and court security over the past year.

The two funding supplements for the federal courts contained in the CR would provide $51 million in additional funding through January 15. Federal court officials are hopeful that Congress will extend at least the same rate of funding for the remainder of the current fiscal year.

One funding increase provided $26 million to permit the courts to pay the deferred vouchers of Criminal Justice Act (CJA) private panel attorneys, which were suspended during the last three weeks of September due to budget constraints. These funds will assure that the courts can pay these deferred CJA panel vouchers and that new vouchers submitted can be paid. In addition, funding will be used to limit downsizing and furloughs in Federal Defender Organizations through Jan. 15, 2014.

The second funding increase of $25 million assures the judiciary can meet the courts’ most critical funding needs during the CR period. These funds will be used to restore, during the CR period, funding for probation and pretrial services’ account for drug and mental health treatment of offenders under supervision and defendants awaiting trial, as well as partially restore funding for court staffing losses. They also will be used to avoid further reductions in court security in courthouses around the country.

An Upward Swing for the Courts?
The overall continuing resolution that is currently in effect largely means the extension of last year’s funding levels for government agencies at post-sequester levels. However, the increase of $51 million portrays good news for the federal courts. This development is no accident and is due to the significant advocacy efforts by FBA and its circuits, chapters, members, and other groups in informing Congress of the urgent need to assure adequate funding for the federal courts. Those efforts were complemented by the unprecedented efforts of federal judges themselves over the past year in educating Washington lawmakers about the impact of sequestration upon the federal courts.

To reach modest levels of adequate funding for the current year, the judiciary has requested a total full-year appropriation of $7.084 billion for FY 2014. Two positive signs that Congressional funding aligning with the judiciary’s $7 billion funding request. First, Congress, as noted, was sympathetic to the judiciary’s needs in the CR and provided $51 million in additional short-term funding. Second, the FY 2014 appropriations bills for the federal courts, as approved at the House and Senate appropriations committee levels in July, were also responsive to the courts’ needs. Although the House funding number is lower than the comparable Senate number, there is hope that the ultimate amount that will be approved in January—in the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations bill—will address the courts’ funding needs.

The Need for Continued Advocacy
Nonetheless, despite these positive signs, one can’t be sure in these interesting times that Congress ultimately will do the right thing. That’s why it’s critical that the FBA and its circuits, chapters, and members continue to send a message to Congress that underscores the need for adequate funding for our federal courts. Let me extend a sincere word of thanks to all who have taken the time to educate their lawmakers about the financial needs of the courts and to invite more of you to do the same: our education and advocacy efforts seem to be turning the tide.
 

Bruce Moyer is government relations counsel for the FBA. © 2013 Bruce Moyer. All rights reserved

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