Sequestration Squeezed the Federal Courts

     (CN) - Delays in processing civil cases and staff reductions were some of the issues federal courts had to wrestle with because of across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration, the U.S. judiciary reported.
     Enacted 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.
     When took effect in 2013, the judiciary had to cope with a $350 million shortfall.
     Sequestration contributed to a 15 percent reduction in staff during 2½ years at clerks offices, probation and pretrial services offices, and in courts of appeal, according to a March report to the Judicial Conference of the United States from Judge Julia Gibbons, chairwoman of the conference's Budget Committee.
     Federal defender staffing levels took an 11 percent hit in a period that began at the start of the fiscal year 2013. During the same time, 150,000 federal defender staff hours were cut.
     Cutbacks to staff delayed processing times for civil cases, Gibbons said.
     From October 2011 to September 2013, the median time to get from filing a civil case to a final determination by a court increased by 16 percent: from almost 7½ months to 8½ months.
     "This directly impacts individuals, small businesses and corporations seeking to resolve disputes in the federal courts," Judge Gibbons said on the federal courts' website newsletter, The Third Branch News.
     "Had it remained in place, we believe sequestration would have done significant harm to commerce, orderly and prompt resolution of disputes, public safety, and constitutional rights, ranging from effective representation by counsel for criminal defendants to jury trials."
     The other two branches of government provided the judiciary with some respite in a fiscal year 2014 budget. But that comes after years of flat funding, Gibbons said. She judge noted that a nondefense discretionary cap of $24 billion will increase by just $1 billion in the next fiscal year, 2015.
     That means the courts must persist with long-running programs to contain costs, Gibbons said.
     "Such initiatives are likely to be controversial, difficult to implement quickly, and potentially would result in significant change within the judiciary," Gibbons said. "Nevertheless, we strongly believe that future budget constraints ... dictate that cost containment must continue to be a top priority of the ... judiciary as a whole."
     The Chairman of the conference's Committee on Space and Facilities, Judge Brooks Smith told the Judicial Conference that courts will reduce space to contain costs.
     "Let there be no mistake: achieving the space-reduction goals of the Judicial Conference will not be easy," Smith said. "But those goals, while ambitious, are realistic and attainable."
     Smith said the courts will balance any expansion with an equivalent reduction elsewhere, except in cases where Congress had approved new work.
     The judiciary aims to reduce space by 3 percent by the end of the fiscal year 2014, Smith said.