Congress Must Shield Courts From Sequestration, Rights Groups Say

     WASHINGTON (CN) - Without alleviating the effects of sequestration on the federal judiciary, the rights to due process and fair trials will suffer, several groups warned Congress.
     Passed after the 2011 debt ceiling showdown, the $85 billion sequester was sold as a stopgap after President Barack Obama and Republican lawmakers failed to reach a deficit-reduction agreement.
     The judiciary is absorbing its share of in sequestration cuts under the Budget Control Act, coping with $350 million in budget cuts to the federal court system. In a Sep. 17 letter to Congress, more than two dozen groups warned that shrinking budgets threatens "fundamental constitutional rights, including jury trials and due process, plus statutory rights, such as the right to a prompt trial."
     "In a year when this nation marks the 50th anniversary of both Gideon v. Wainwright and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, we are reminded of the role that courts have played, and can continue to play, in the struggle for equality and justice," the two-page letter states.
     In Gideon, the Supreme Court ruled that the 14th Amendment ensures that criminal defendants who cannot afford a lawyer must be provided with counsel.
     The letter from the civil and human rights groups continues: "However, the courts cannot play this role if they lack the necessary resources."
     In the wake of a $50 million shortfall for the federal defender program, full-time defenders laid off or furloughed staff, and the courts increased deferred payments to court-appointed attorneys. Judges say the cuts are unsustainable and place a strain on the courts' constitutional duty to provide lawyers for the poor.
     Last month, the federal judiciary reduced by $15 fees for court-appointed defense lawyers - the first time it had cut fees since the Criminal Justice Act passed in 1964.
     Activists behind Tuesday's letter warned that partisan budget battles in Congress will take their toll on the courts. The U.S. government could shutdown when the fiscal ends on Sep. 30, if lawmakers fail to pass a spending plan. An impending showdown over the nation's $16.7 trillion debt ceiling looms.
     "If leaders from both sides of the aisle fail to come together to provide adequate resources for the judiciary, this failure will have grave ramifications for the American people, who depend on courts to protect their fundamental rights and liberties," Justice at Stake representative Praveen Fernandes said in a statement. "Defaulting on the responsibility to fund the judiciary is defaulting on a commitment to justice."
     Justice at Stake cosigned the letter with 26 other nonpartisan groups.
     It comes after an August letter to Congress by 88 federal judges.