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Budget Sequester Hits Fed Courts

LOS ANGELES (CN) - The clerk's office in federal court in Los Angeles, the biggest federal court in the nation, plans to close on a series of Fridays over the next few months as a result of cuts tied to the federal budget sequestration that took effect this month.

Chief Judge George King in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles said the sequester is unfortunate, and the broad cuts mandated by the sequester will "impair our ability to provide the services that we have been providing."

The clerk's office staff will take furlough days on seven Fridays spread out from April through August, as part of the effort to absorb the court's share of $85 billion in across-the-board cuts resulting from the Budget Sequestration Act.

"We will have a drastically reduced staff, so many things will not get done on those days," King added.

The judge said his court has done its best to minimize furlough days but the cut back in work serves as a blow to the staff. "I fully appreciate the negative impact," said King in an interview.

The chief judge stressed the point that the court will not be closed on the reduced service days, but that understaffing would inevitably cause delays in the processing of cases and have an impact on trials.

U.S. District Court in the Central District of California is the biggest federal court in the nation based on the population it covers. The court has for many years carried the highest volume of cases of any federal court in the nation.

The court's reach covers seven counties in Southern California: San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Orange and Riverside counties. Its courthouses serve as the federal trial court for 18 million people.

"In order to adjust for the sequester cuts in the court's budget, the U.S. District Court will furlough staff and reduce court services on specific Fridays between April 26th through the end of August, 2013," said a notice from Clerk Terry Nafisi.

While the court's clerk's office will be closed in Santa Ana, Riverside and Los Angeles, the courthouses in the central district will remain open.

The criminal intake section, and specific emergency civil filings will be accepted, including cases where the statute of limitations are set to expire, certain temporary restraining order applications, and arrest warrant applications for some cases involving vessels.

Electronic filings can still be made on reduced service days, said the clerk's notice.

Passed after the 2011 debt ceiling debacle, the sequester originally served as stop gap measure but came into effect after lawmakers in Washington failed to agree on how to slash $1.5 trillion from the deficit over the next 10 years.

Earlier this month, Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Julia Gibbons told the policy-making body for the federal court system, the Judicial Conference, that courts would have to cope with "a budget crisis that is unprecedented."

"We believe we have done all we can to minimize the impact of sequestration, but a cut of this magnitude, particularly so late in the fiscal year, will affect every facet of court operations," said Gibbons, chair of the conference's budget committee, at a meeting in Washington this month.

Noting that the sequester translated into a cut for federal court budgets of 5 percent, or $350 million, a newsletter for the federal courts says public safety and court security could be impacted.

The federal courts are braced for furloughs equal to a 10 percent pay cut, and layoffs are expected for as many as 2,000 employees, said the newsletter.

"Reductions of this magnitude strike at the heart of our entire system of justice and spread throughout the country. The longer the sequestration stays in place, the more severe will be its impact on the courts and those who use them," Judge Gibbons said. "These actions are unsustainable, difficult, and painful to implement. Indeed, the judiciary cannot continue to operate at sequestration funding levels without seriously compromising the constitutional mission of the federal courts."

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