July 2013: Judiciary Requests Emergency Funds to Avert Deep Cuts

Washington Watch | July 2013
By Bruce Moyer

The Federal Bar Association is leading a national effort to prompt Congress to provide emergency funding to lessen the damage of the automatic budget cuts, called sequestration, upon the operations of the federal courts.

In May, the federal judiciary requested $73 million in supplemental funding from Congress to help the courts limp through the remainder of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. The sought funds will plug a portion of the budget shortfall that the judiciary has suffered as a result of sequestration. Half of the requested funds will sustain court operations; the other half will mitigate the cuts in federal defender services, which provide court-appointed representation to indigent defendants.

The FBA is reaching out to national bar groups and organizations for help in heightening public concern over the damage that the cuts, if left to continue, will inflict upon the federal courts and the administration of justice. And the FBA is increasing its own advocacy efforts, through its chapters and leaders, to educate Congress on the critical financial needs of the federal courts.

In a June 11 letter to Congress, FBA Executive Director Karen Silberman and Government Relations Committee Chair West Allen said, “Sequestration has created an unprecedented crisis that is draining the critical resources necessary for the Federal Judiciary, a coequal branch of our government, to properly perform its Constitutional responsibilities.”

The Dire Impact of Sequestration
Sequestration has reduced federal court funding by $350 million below the 2013 funding level. The situation is likely to only worsen because sequestration is scheduled to continue for another nine years under the budget law that the Congress and President negotiated in 2011. Already, some courts have begun to cut back visibly on their operations and services to the public. These have included reductions in court days and operating hours of clerk offices, causing delays in proceedings and docketing.

The operations of probationer and pretrial service units also have been reduced, raising public safety concerns. The safety of communities is threatened when the deterrence, detection, and supervision of released felons from prison is reduced. Security measures within the courts themselves also have been cut back.

The most noticeable impact has occurred in federal defender offices, whose attorneys are appointed by the courts to represent indigent defendants. Assistant federal defenders and other personnel are being furloughed for up to 20 days between now and Sept. 30, the largest number of furlough days of any part of the federal government. And some Criminal Justice Act payments to private attorneys to represent indigent defendants will be pushed into the new fiscal year to achieve more savings.

As Judge William B. Traxler Jr., chairman of the Executive Committee of the Judicial Conference, warned, “The predictable result is that criminal prosecutions will slow and our legal system will not operate as efficiently. This will cost us all in many different ways.”

Cost Containment by the Courts
Over the past two years, before sequestration even kicked in, federal court units across the country began extensively to cut costs in a number of ways—most prominently through trimming 2,000 jobs, largely by attrition. However, unlike many executive branch departments, the federal judiciary doesn’t have the budgetary scale to reprogram funds or cut funding for programs at the state and local levels.

The budget of the entire federal judiciary is small in comparison to the rest of the government, at only $7 billion. Most of that funding goes to pay the salaries of the courts’ 30,000 employees and to pay rent to the General Services Administration, the government’s landlord. Since rent is a “must-pay” for the courts, personnel cuts remain the primary means of cost-reduction.

Sequestration in the federal courts is compounded by another factor: the judiciary has no control over its workload. The courts must react to the cases that are filed. Overall, that workload has not declined; in fact, over the past 20 years, the caseload of the federal courts has increased by 38 percent.

At this point, the federal judiciary is the only government entity that has requested supplemental funding from Congress. The White House Office of Management and Budget has blocked all requests for supplemental funding from Executive Branch departments, including the Department of Defense, which began on July 8 to impose 11 days of unpaid furloughs on 650,000 of its civilian employees.

Clearly, sequestration has generated unprecedented financial challenges for the federal courts. And, looking ahead, the situation will only worsen without congressional assistance. The judiciary is clearly meeting its obligation to reduce the federal budget deficit by its actions. The fundamental question is when the tipping point is reached and those sacrifices become so great that the Constitutional role of the courts becomes threatened.

To learn more about funding for the federal courts and how you can help, please visit www.fedbar.org.

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

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