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Federal courts around the country have been forced by budget constraints to lay off or furlough employees and to take other drastic steps to cut costs. Although court personnel are hesitant to say that justice has taken a back seat to economy, there is a note of urgency in their complaints. There are two dimensions to the problem. First, as in years past, Congress did not approve appropriations for the judiciary before the beginning of the fiscal year on Oct. 1. That means the courts have been operating for more than two months without knowing how much they will have for the year, hampering their planning efforts. Although the House of Representatives passed an omnibus appropriations bill last week that provides funding for the judiciary, any hopes for a speedy resolution of the problem were dashed when the Senate recessed for the year without taking action. The Senate is not expected to take up the bill until Jan. 20. In the meantime, the judiciary has been funded through short-term, stopgap continuing resolutions. The second dimension is that Congress is unlikely to provide enough funding to keep up with the growing workload of the federal courts. Request for 10.8% more In March, the judiciary requested that funding be increased 10.8% from fiscal year 2003, noting that in the previous year bankruptcy filings had grown 8%, civil filings in district court 10%, criminal cases 7% and the number of persons in pretrial services and under probationary supervision 4%. In March testimony before a congressional committee, Judge John G. Heyburn, who sits in the Western District of Kentucky and chairs the Judicial Conference’s budget committee, warned that several years’ worth of underfunding hadn’t yet left the courts in crisis, “but . . . over time we’re getting there.” In October, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, in his capacity as presiding officer of the Judicial Conference, warned Congress that anything less than a 7.3% increase would force layoffs or furloughs of employees. If the omnibus appropriations bill is enacted in its current form when the Senate returns in January, the judiciary will get an increase of only 4.7%. In anticipation, some courts have already made layoffs or instituted furloughs. Sherri Carter, district court executive for the Central District of California, said that she has had to reduce her staff by 22 positions out of a total of about 300, by laying people off and not replacing employees who leave of their own accord. She anticipates further reductions in the year to come. Like many other court administrators, she said that she has tried to minimize the impact of shortfalls on staffing levels, by measures such as replacing computers and scheduling cyclical maintenance less often. She’s also had to put low priority tasks like archiving records and disposing of exhibits on the back burner. In the Northern District of California, five people have been laid off and most staff will be forced to take seven unpaid furlough days, according to Clerk of the Court Richard Wieking. In the Southern District of Florida, Clerk of Court Clarence Maddox, who oversees a staff of 165, said that he has already begun laying off employees and may have to let go up to 13, depending on final budget figures. He said he will also leave five vacant positions unfilled, ask four employees to take early retirement and institute a furlough requiring employees to take a total of 16 hours off without pay during the current fiscal year. James W. McCormack, clerk of court for the Eastern District of Arkansas, said that under the administrative office’s staffing formulas, he should have been allotted four new positions given the size of the court’s docket. But because of the budget crunch, he’s had to let go of two employees in full-time positions, and convert two positions from full-time to part-time. Like Carter, to maintain even that reduced level of staffing (51 positions), he’s had to dig into non-personnel accounts, such as cyclical maintenance and computer automation. Meanwhile, the court’s criminal and civil filings have increased. Supervision looks strained John Shope, district court executive for the Northern District of Georgia, doesn’t anticipate layoffs or furloughs in the clerk’s office. “We’ll be able to recover lost personnel funds by not filling existing vacancies,” he said. As for employees who supervise probationers, the court will “probably have to do furloughs or offer early retirement.” Not all courts expect drastic measures. While congressional generosity has not kept pace with rising dockets, the funding allocation formulas used by the judiciary’s administrative office shift resources to courts with unusually high increases. “Filings are up; that’s good for us,” is how James Murphy, clerk of court for the District of New Jersey, put it. He doesn’t expect furloughs or layoffs. A few themes come up again and again in discussions with court administrators. There is frustration that Congress is not providing full funding at the same time that it is imposing ever greater responsibilities. Carter, for instance, wonders if Congress considers that when it gives more money to the Justice Department for anti-terrorism enforcement, that will necessarily increase the number of court proceedings. During his congressional testimony, Heyburn warned that the surge in federal capital prosecutions was putting a strain on the courts’ ability to fund defense counsel. Not all of the blame was centered on Congress, though. Some administrators thought it was time for the administrative office to re-examine its allocation formulas, which were sometimes said to favor small districts over large ones, and circuit and bankruptcy courts over district courts. A number of administrators also mentioned that computer automation of the docket, while meant to save human labor, has had the opposite effect in the short term. Young’s e-mail address is [email protected]. Reporting by Dan Christensen in the affiliated Miami Daily Business Review and Jason Hoppin in The Recorder in San Francisco is incorporated into this story.

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