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It’s that time of year again: The nation’s federal courts are bracing for a potential budget crisis. If the picture does not improve when the new federal fiscal year kicks in on Oct. 1, judges warn, lawyers may experience slower service, and perhaps suspension of civil jury trials if the courts run out of money for jurors. Federal courts across the country are already handling budget constraints by cutting court hours, laying off employees and having court workers use furlough days. To save money, the 1st, 2d and 4th U.S. circuit courts of appeals have canceled their 2004 judicial conferences, according to David Sellers, spokesman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AOC). The 2d Circuit’s unprecedented decision to suspend a scheduled judicial conference saves about $300,000 for the circuit alone, said Chief Judge John M. Walker Jr. The crunch also prompted the 2d Circuit to let go of its public information officer, whose salary topped $100,000. The clerk of court will be assigned many duties of that post, Walker said. Raises and cuts Funding at or slightly above historical levels is equivalent to a cut, given unavoidable expenses such as rent hikes and mandatory pay increases, said John G. Heyburn II, chairman of the Judicial Conference Budget Committee and chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky. With the exception of civil cases, 2003 filings increased in every category, according to AOC statistics. Level funding will require courts to drop roughly 3,800 employees from the payroll, the AOC indicated in a statement regarding Heyburn’s testimony. Unless Congress steps in with fiscal relief, swelling criminal case dockets will soak up this year’s money for juror fees well ahead of schedule, which could mean suspension of civil jury trials to make ends meet, said Carolyn Dineen King, chief judge of the 5th Circuit. King also is chairwoman of the Executive Committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States, which in turn manages the court system. Nor can the courts slice a piece off items like salaries for the roughly 1,000 judges in the system. Apart from the U.S. Supreme Court, which is funded separately, the nation’s federal courts received about $5.5 billion for the current fiscal year, Heyburn said. That figure represents a 4.7% increase from the previous year, he said. As for the coming year, the judiciary needs at least a 6% budget boost to maintain services at current levels, Heyburn said. So far, he noted, the message from Washington is that court appropriations are not likely to budge much for the coming fiscal year that begins in October. This year, courts face 175 layoffs, 315 buyouts or early retirements, and some 17,560 furlough days nationwide to make ends meet, King said. “I think it’s going to increase the difficulty of lawyers to obtain prompt hearings in civil cases and will also make it more difficult for them to receive answers to questions they have about court procedures,” said Mary M. Schroeder, chief judge of the 9th Circuit. Feeling the pinch, some courthouses are rolling back public hours. In December, the federal district court in Hawaii began closing the clerk’s office at 3 p.m. instead of 4:30 p.m. each Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. A combination of cost cutting and reduced foot traffic due to electronic filing prompted the bankruptcy court in Lexington, Ky., to close a half hour earlier each afternoon, said Clerk Jerry D. Truitt. Those dashing off to the clerk’s office for the Central District of California in Los Angeles will have to cool their heels until 10 a.m. every morning. The delayed opening is one of a host of cost-cutting measures detailed on the court’s Web site, along with “greater dependence on automated telephone systems,” and waits of up to 30 days for research of case information. Rent is another sticky issue: “Our rent to the [U.S. General Services Administration] goes up every year, whether we are ready or not,” said King. She added that rent accounts for 25% of the courts’ budget and that leases have escalation clauses. Fiscal woes affect various courts differently across the country. Accelerating enforcement and prosecution of immigration offenses is bloating dockets in states that border Mexico. The 9th Circuit, which includes California and Arizona, is experiencing this case boom, Schroeder said, noting that the influx of cases pressures courthouse staff and probation offices that are already understaffed.

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