87 Chief Judges Plead for Sequestration Relief
(CN) - The chief judges of 87 federal courts warned congressional leaders this week that another year of sequestration on top of flat funding "will have a devastating, and long lasting, impact on the administration of justice in this country."
In a letter to Vice President Joe Biden, as president of the Senate, the judges cautioned that deep cuts are unsustainable and pose a threat to public safety, and asked senators to carve out an exception for the judiciary should they extend sequestration another year.
"As the boots on the ground in our nation's federal trial courts, we have experienced firsthand the effect of those constraints and funding reductions," the letter states. "They have forced us to slash our operations to the bone, and we believe that our constitutional duties, public safety, and the quality of the justice system will be profoundly compromised by any further cuts."
The federal court system is absorbing its share of $85 billion in sequestration cuts under the Budget Control Act. Passed after the 2011 debt ceiling showdown, the sequester was sold as a stopgap measure after President Barack Obama and Republican lawmakers failed to reach a deficit-reduction agreement.
The judiciary needs to make up some of the $350 million in budget cuts to the federal court system. Appropriations committees in the House of Representatives and the Senate have respectively approved $465 million and $363 million funding increases for the fiscal year 2014.
Offices for clerks, probation and pretrial services cut 1,000 staff for the fiscal year 2013, the judges say. Over two years, the judiciary was forced to shed close to 2,100 staff, a 10 percent reduction.
"Our current staffing level is the lowest it has been since 1999 despite significant workload growth during this same period of time," the judges say.
Courts this year have had to cope with 4,500 furlough days, with an additional 4,100 furlough days on the horizon.
Reduced funding for court security, pretrial and probation staffing is putting "public safety at risk," the judges caution.
"Particularly troublesome is the 20 percent cut that had to be made to the law enforcement allotments that fund drug, mental health, and sex offender treatment and testing services for offenders, searches, and electronic and GPS monitoring," the letter states.
"But the most significant impact," the judges say, is the $50 million shortfall for the defender services account.
Because federal defender offices have had to lay off or furlough staff, the courts increased deferred payments to court-appointed attorneys. That places a strain on the judiciary's constitutional duty to provide counsel for criminal defendants who can't afford attorneys and is ultimately self-defeating, the judges say.
"This is an untenable approach, both because it increases costs overall and because adding to appropriations requirements in the coming fiscal year compounds the shortfall of funding in the overall account," the letter states.
By way of example, the chief judges note that layoffs in New York's federal defender office have delayed the trial of Osama bin Laden's son-in-law Sulaiman Abu Ghaith.
"Exacerbating the problem in the defenders account is the fact that the judiciary has no control over the number and nature of cases in which court-appointed counsel must provide a defense," the letter states. "The caseload is driven entirely by the prosecutorial policies of the Department of Justice and its 93 United States Attorneys."
Because the DOJ has not been subjected to furloughs, the "pace at which criminal cases require court-appointed counsel has continued unabated, while resources in the defender services program are diminishing," the judges wrote. "As chief district judges, we are deeply concerned that the cuts in federal defender offices will severely undermine and weaken a program that has taken years to build."
Layoffs and reduced administrative staff hours cause delays and reduce public access to courts, and hamper the ability of courts to maintain IT infrastructure, the judges say.
"When cases lag, the judiciary is seen as inefficient, or worse, unsympathetic to litigants ranging from pro se litigants (who represent themselves) to individuals and companies seeking bankruptcy relief or the resolution of civil disputes to the government and defendants in criminal cases," the letter states.
While the chief judges praised Congress for increasing funding for the fiscal year 2014, they said they are "deeply concerned about the effects on our mission" if sequestration continues.
"Another round of cuts would be devastating," the judges wrote. "As the folks on the front lines, interacting with and serving the public on a daily basis, we conclude by emphasizing that any further cuts to the judiciary would directly affect our ability to carry out our constitutional and statutory duties."
The letter is addressed to the Senate and the House of Representatives, and the House and Senate Judiciary and Appropriations committees. In addition to Biden, its recipients are Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).