Wednesday, October 4, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Wednesday, October 4, 2023 | Back issues
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Federal Courts Seek|Emergency Funding

(CN) - Sequestration cuts are "unsustainable," the chief judge of the 4th Circuit said, asking Congress for emergency funding to make up some of the $350 million in budget cuts to the federal court system.

Chief Circuit Judge William Traxler Jr. said he was concerned the cuts run so deep they threaten the courts' "responsibilities under the Constitution."

Traxler issued a statement on the impact of sequestration on the judiciary's defender funding on Wednesday. Traxler also is chairman of the executive committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States - the policy-making body for the federal court system.

In the statement, Traxler lamented the $350 million in federal spending reductions which took effect March 1. That includes a $51 million shortfall for defender services.

Also on the chopping block is funding for pretrial and probation staffing, which "means less deterrence, detection, and supervision of released felons from prison," Traxler said.

Related funding for drug testing, drug treatment and mental health services was cut by 20 percent.

Federal courts are suffering from absorbing of the $85 billion in cuts from sequestration cuts under the Budget Control Act.

Passed after the 2011 debt ceiling showdown, the sequester was sold as a stopgap after President Obama and Republican lawmakers failed to agree on how to reduce the deficit by $1.5 trillion in the next 10 years.

Eliminating $350 million in spending for the judiciary was a "difficult and complex task," Traxler said.

"The impact of sequestration on the judiciary is particularly harsh because the courts have no control over their workload," Traxler wrote. "They must respond to all cases that are filed, whether they are by individuals, businesses, or the government."

Traxler said reductions in court staffing and hours will cause delays and reduce public access to courts. He said the judiciary has cut its security expenditures by 25 percent.

"National information technology upgrades to improve infrastructure and financial management have been delayed. Sequestration is impacting federal court operations and programs throughout the country, including a $51 million shortfall in the FY [fiscal year] 2013 funds in the defender services account," Traxler wrote.

"This happens when we cannot afford to fulfill the Sixth Amendment right to representation for indigents charged with crimes," the judge wrote. "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."

Federal defender offices will furlough staff for 15 days of the fiscal year, and payments to court-appointed attorneys will be deferred for 15 days.

"The defender program has no flexibility to absorb cuts of this magnitude without impacting payments to private counsel appointed under the Criminal Justice Act and Federal Defender Organizations, which pay for government lawyers to provide counsel to eligible defendants," Judge Traxler said. "Federal defender offices already have fired and furloughed staff, as well as drastically cut essential services. Criminal prosecutions have been delayed because defender organizations do not have the staff necessary to continue their representation of the defendant or the funds to pay for experts or other cases costs."

The $51 million shortfall means millions of dollars of expenses will be carried over to the 2014 fiscal year, Traxler said.

"This level of funding is unsustainable without relief from Congress," he said.

The judiciary will ask the White House' Office of Management and Budget to forward an emergency supplemental funding request to Congress to soften the blows to defender services, probation and pretrial services, court staffing and court security.

Federal courts administrative office spokesman Charles Hall told Courthouse News in an email that the judiciary expects to send the request later this month.

In his 2012 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote: "A significant and prolonged shortfall in judicial funding would inevitably result in the delay or denial of justice for the people the courts serve."

Traxler said he shared Roberts' "grave concern." The Office of Defender Services did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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