Atlanta’s federal appeals and trial courts will sidestep furloughs or layoffs this fiscal year even though the federal sequester that took effect March 1 will reduce court budgets by 5 percent.
But the chief judges of the Eleventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and the Northern District of Georgia told the Daily Report that if the sequester remains in place next year, court personnel will likely face furloughs that will inevitably slow the resolution of cases.
The staffs of the U.S. attorney’s office here, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Marshals Service, and other agencies under the aegis of the U.S. Justice Department—as well as their counterparts across the country—will not be as fortunate, according to a letter addressing the potential impact of the sequester that U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has sent to Congress.
In a letter last month to Senator Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., chair of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee, Holder said that DOJ personnel should expect furloughs that could extend to 14 days, nearly three workweeks, before the fiscal year ends on Sept. 30.
Federal defender staffs across the country face even more dramatic cuts. In testimony last year before the U.S. House Appropriations Committee, Sixth Circuit Judge Julia Gibbons, chairwoman of the Judicial Conference budget committee, warned that payments to private attorneys providing defense counsel services would have to be suspended the last six weeks of the fiscal year, and federal defender staffs could face furloughs as long as six weeks.
In Atlanta, Stephanie Kearns, executive director of the Federal Defender Program, said the sequester "is certainly having some serious consequences for us. … We will just be handling the same caseload with less staff."
‘Devastating impact’ across U.S.
Chief Judge Joel Dubina of the Eleventh Circuit said the sequester already "is having a devastating impact on all the federal courts across the country."
Some courts already are furloughing staff, he said. After budget negotiations between Congress and the White House foundered in late 2011, the Eleventh Circuit last year began preparing for the sequester.
Dubina said the appellate court offered early buyouts to some of its most senior people who were eligible to retire. Eight took the court up on the offer, he said, and their positions—including the court’s chief mediator—remain vacant.
"We are doing all that we can to try to avoid furloughs, and, certainly on my watch, I don’t want anyone to lose his or her job," he said. "But there may come a time when we do have to furlough some employees."
The chief judge said he has issued instructions that if furloughs prove necessary, no employee will be furloughed until the end of the year. He said he did so because if Congress were to make additional funds available after employees have been furloughed, they would not be reimbursed for their lost wages.
Dubina predicted that without any budgetary relief, the appellate court’s ability to administer justice in a timely fashion could be hindered.
"We’ve cut back as far as we can cut without really cutting into bone. We are about as lean and mean as we can get," said Dubina, who has delayed taking senior status until two current vacancies on the Eleventh Circuit are filled. "If we don’t get some relief, I think what you will see is that everything will slow down. I don’t mean come to a complete halt. But you will see resolutions of cases slow down. It’s very unfortunate for people in our country who litigate in the federal system."
Chief Judge Julie Carnes of the Northern District of Georgia, said that thoughtful planning for more than a year by U.S. District Clerk James Hatten will allow the court to avoid furloughs for the rest of the fiscal year. Hatten, she said, "is going to move every dime we’ve got into salaries."
Funds solely for salaries
As a result, at least for now, there are no longer funds available to maintain or upgrade the district’s information technology system or make any other expenditures, she said. "We won’t be doing anything but paying salaries."
The district court also has been short two judges for four years because Georgia’s U.S. senators and the White House have been unable to agree on nominees to fill those posts. Meanwhile, the ranks of its senior judges have been depleted.
Carnes said as a result of the shortages, despite the best efforts of the remaining active and senior judges, "I think civil trials are already moving more slowly" through the system.
The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, she added, "is saying nationally that it may direct us toward the end of the year not to hold civil trials" if Congress cannot forge a budget compromise that would take the place of the sequester.
Hatten said all of the court’s funds have been channeled into salaries because the allotments for salaries and expenses, once trimmed by sequestration, were insufficient to meet the court’s current payroll. He described these emergency transfers, which included funds to make the payroll of the district’s probation office, "a Band-Aid."
"The problem is that this is the third or fourth year that our budgets have been declining," he said. "After three or four years, you’re not dealing with fat anymore. … This year, I think some courts are going to have real problems. … Next year, it’s going to be more onerous. Next year, everybody is going to be in a difficult situation. That’s assuming we keep on the path we’re on right now."
On March 20, Gibbons, the Judicial Conference budget committee chair,—echoed her Georgia colleagues’ concerns in testimony before the U.S. House Appropriations Committee. She predicted that, without budget relief, as many as 2,000 court employees could face layoffs or furloughs equivalent to a 10 percent pay cut.
"Unlike many executive branch entities, we do not have programs or grants that we can cut in response to a budget shortfall," she warned. "The entire scope and volume of our work are attributable to carrying out functions assigned to us by the Constitution and by statute. We cannot reduce our work if we face deep funding cuts. We must adjudicate all cases that are filed with the courts, we must protect the community by supervising defendants awaiting trial and criminals on post-conviction release, we must provide qualified defense counsel for defendants who cannot afford representation, we must pay jurors for costs associated with performing their civic duty, and we must ensure the safety and security of court staff, litigants, and the public in federal court facilities."
A spokesman for U.S. Attorney Sally Quillian Yates in Atlanta referred questions about the impact of the sequester on her office to the DOJ in Washington.
The DOJ would not provide information on cuts to specific offices because it is still finalizing sequestration plans. But in his letter to Mikulski, Holder stated that the DOJ will not be able to meet the sequestration funding mandates without furloughing staff.
"Staff-intensive" programs and divisions "would generally suffer higher furloughs than components with available balances from funds appropriated in prior years or more flexibility in non-personnel budgets," he said.
Among the anticipated cutbacks, Holder listed:
• $100 million in cuts to the nation’s 93 U.S. attorney offices, an average of about $1 million per office;
• Potential furloughs of as many as sevenworkdays for DOJ civil division employees;
• A hiring freeze and furloughs of all FBI personnel, including agents and intelligence analysts, for 14 days;
• Staff furloughs at the U.S. Marshals Service of up to two days a pay period—or 13 days total—between April 1 and Sept. 30.
Trims on insurance, pensions
Public defender Kearns said that, while some federal defender offices across the country began instituting layoffs a month ago, she has been able to eke out funds for to continue to pay staff salaries in Atlanta by changing the office health insurance policy to one with lower premiums and by suspending contributions to employees’ pension plans.
"My employees are taking the same hit as DOJ [employees]," she said. "They are just deferring the pain to retirement."
Kearns also said the sequester cuts will mean far fewer resources are available to hire expert witnesses to help defend their cases. "I have been told repeatedly there is not an extra dime" for any emergency spending, she said. "We will have problems if we can’t get experts we rely on to cut us a break on their hourly rates."
That lack of resources could potentially prevent a defendant from securing a fair trial, although Kearns said, "It depends to some extent on the commitment of the people doing the work."
"In an office like mine," she explained, "I expect people will put their clients’ best interests against their own economic interests and do the best they can do. … I have complete confidence in my staff. … Their moral priorities are such they will always put their clients first."