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Already more than two months past the deadline, the Senate failed again this week to pass the federal judiciary’s budget, leaving federal courts to twist in the wind while contemplating furloughs, buyouts and more layoffs. The courts’ budget has so far been a casualty of partisan wrangling over an omnibus appropriations bill. Courts are now operating under stop-gap funding, but it falls short of what is needed to maintain current services. Locally, the consequences have already been felt. In the Northern District, five people have been laid off while most court staff will be forced to take seven unpaid furlough days — in effect, a 3 percent pay cut. “It really is an unprecedented situation,” said a fuming Richard Wieking, clerk of the Northern District. Wieking expects his budget to come in at $900,000 less than the previous year. But even when the fiscal year 2004 budget is passed, things may not get much better. The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts now expects 2004 funding to fall hundreds of millions short of the funding needed to even tread water. Across the country, districts are operating under orders to constrain spending — filling vacancies, providing non-essential services and making unnecessary purchases are strongly discouraged. “It’s just outrageous that they [the Congress] do this to the judiciary,” Wieking said. Robyn Lipsky, an administrative law clerk to Chief Judge Marilyn Hall Patel, said the budget delays have been a hassle. “It’s just a big pain to us because of the uncertainty.” Other districts have been hit too, particularly bankruptcy courts in California, which have seen declining caseloads. In the Eastern District, 11 bankruptcy court staff have been laid off. AOC leadership met Wednesday to plan for 2004 cuts. A letter will be sent to chief judges, probably on Monday, spelling out the anticipated damage. But AOC spokeswoman Karen Redmond warned that the judges are likely to be unhappy with what they see. Nationwide, Redmond said as many as 1,000 staff positions, some of them currently unfilled, could be cut. Though Chief Justice William Rehnquist asked Congress for a 10 percent funding increase (and offered a 7 percent alternative, just to maintain services), the judiciary’s budget is expected to increase only about 4.7 percent. But because of built-in spending increases, 4.7 percent actually amounts to a cut. Layoffs haven’t hit the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. But Court Clerk Cathy Catterson said she is looking for ways to save money. “We’re discussing early [retirements] and buyout possibilities,” Catterson said. If the court doesn’t get money soon, more drastic measures such as furloughs will have to be considered. Circuit Executive Greg Walters said the addition of judgeships — for example, in San Diego’s Southern District — came without further funding. With just two vacancies, the court of appeals is also operating closer to capacity than it has in years. Much as they are needed, the additional judges put a strain on the circuit’s pocketbook. “We’re looking at early retirements and buyouts,” Walters said. “It’s optional to the employees and optional to the districts as to whether they want to offer it.” Since the FY 2004 budget was postponed past Jan. 1, planned raises for the judiciary’s civilian employees due to kick in at that time will be slashed in half. They will be fully funded once the budget passes. The budget for defender services is also strained. Northern District Public Defender Barry Portman expects the money used to pay court-appointed attorneys will run out about three weeks before the fiscal year ends. That could mean attorneys go weeks without getting paid, though special funding was approved last year to cover a similar gap. “We’re hopeful that the Senate will come through this year, as it did last year,” Portman said. In 2003, the Senate failed to pass a budget until the spring — still a possibility for 2004. But last year’s stop-gap funding came in at a higher level, making it less painful for the judiciary. So far, the public has not been seriously affected by the cuts. But Wieking said he may be forced to cut back on hours for the file-examination room in the clerk’s office, for example. And if the cuts continue, Lipsky said, “There will be impacts to the public, which is distressing to us.” Melanie Alvord, a spokeswoman for the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the Senate will next consider the bill when it reconvenes Jan. 20. At that time, Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, will ask for a cloture vote to cut off debate on the bill.

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