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Closing the federal courthouse one day a week. Putting civil trials on hold for a month. Granting felony offenders early release. Deferring payments to court-appointed attorneys. Curtailing drug treatment. And firing staff. These are some of the proposals being considered by officials at the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, who say rising caseloads and a decrease in funding are pushing them closer and closer to a budget crisis. “From what I have seen in 20 years, this is probably the most serious challenge we have had with the budget,” says U.S. District Court Chief Judge Thomas Hogan. “We’ve cut ourselves to the bone, and that’s what we’re concerned about.” Since 2002, the U.S. District Court’s annual budget has decreased over 5 percent from $15.3 million to $14.5 million. Meanwhile, the number of criminal cases going to trial has doubled over the past year, and mandatory expenses, such as employee benefits and rent, continue to rise. In order to get by without making further cuts, Hogan says the court needs more than the $800,000 that has been sliced over the last few years. Anything less, he says, could lead to drastic measures, such as furloughing employees or regularly closing the E. Barrett Prettyman Courthouse. Congress is still debating the federal judiciary’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2005. A recent proposal in the House of Representatives would restore most — but not all — of those cuts. “It will be a very sad day for the federal judiciary if we close the court one day a week or one day every other week,” Hogan says. “Congress is aware of it. There’s just not a lot of money.” D.C.’s federal court is not alone. For the past two years, the federal judiciary nationwide has struggled with budgets that some judges say barely cover operating costs. The war on terror is also placing additional strain on court resources. Edward Adams, spokesman for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, says his court is dealing with deep budget cuts while at the same time handling some of the country’s largest, most complicated terrorism cases. For example, Adams says the case against Zacarias Moussaoui, the alleged “20th hijacker,” has generated more than 1,175 court filings. Every one of those must be handled, not only by the judge and her staff, but also by the clerk’s office. “A complicated case like this is a drain on resources even in the best of years,” says Adams, adding that the court has eliminated three staff positions this year and is looking at the possibility of buyouts and furloughs. For 2004, the federal court system received $5.1 billion — a 4 percent increase in funding from the previous year. Its fiscal year 2005 request is $5.7 billion — a $600 million increase. On June 23, the House Appropriations Committee approved a budget increase of $414 million — or roughly $86 million shy of what officials say the courts need. A House appropriations staffer says the federal courts received one of the largest percentage increases — 8 percent — for 2005 of any department under the committee’s purview. It remains unclear what funding the Senate will decide upon. The subcomittee overseeing the judiciary has yet to report on its work. Over the past two years, the Senate slashed increases proposed by the House. While overall funding increased slightly for the federal court system, the D.C. court’s budget decreased. David Sellers, spokesman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, says nearly all courts essentially had their budgets cut because the 2003 and 2004 increases could not fund current services. The Judicial Conference of the United States — the court system’s policy-making body — disperses funds to the individual courts based on workload and salary measurements. The judiciary has also requested $55 million in supplemental funds to cover costs for the current fiscal year. Without it, Hogan says the D.C. court may have to withhold pay from court-appointed lawyers during September. Last year, the federal courts asked for and received $22.2 million in a similar emergency appropriation to pay for court-appointed work, juror fees, and construction expenses. Judges worry that Congress and President George W. Bush will not agree on a budget before the November election — forcing the courts to operate via continuing resolutions. A similar scenario happened last year when the courts operated for nearly four months without a finalized budget. During that time, Congress issued some funds based on the courts’ 2003 budget. Federal judges fear such a “hard freeze” on spending will leave courts with no money to pay for jury trials or court-appointed lawyers. “If we had a hard freeze, that is a crisis — a plain, unvarnished crisis,” says Chief Judge Carolyn King of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, who heads the Executive Committee of the Judicial Conference. This year, federal courts nationwide have already fired 126 employees, provided early retirements for 268, and furloughed some employees for 745 days, according to information from the federal judiciary’s Web site. D.C.’s federal court has not imposed deep cuts quite yet. “Thus far, we’ve been able to pull some tricks out of our hat,” says U.S. District Court Clerk Nancy Mayer-Whittington, adding that the court has been able to reduce spending without slashing jobs or salaries. “We’re a little worried about what we’ll have to do once there’s no hat.” Mayer-Whittington says she imposed a hiring freeze and offered buyouts to some employees, which reduced her staff from 78 in April 2003 to 65. Mayer-Whittington also eliminated the court’s space and facilities coordinator and scaled back training programs. In addition, the court has been unable to compensate some employees for overtime work, she says. Jobs that could be eliminated in the coming months include administrative positions in the areas of procurement and technology. U.S. probation officers for D.C.’s federal court have been asking judges to release some offenders from supervision early in order to save money. Hogan says the early release plan was approved by the Judicial Conference nearly two years ago in order to alleviate the strain on the criminal justice system. He says only those offenders who are doing well under supervision are approved. Hogan says that plan will likely be used more often if funds dry up. In addition, the probation department’s drug treatment program is in jeopardy. Last year, that program had a budget of $1.1 million. This year, it has $860,000. One court official says there may be no way to fund the program in 2005. And while new criminal case filings have remained steady this year, a record number of cases filed two years ago are currently being tried. There have been 80 criminal jury trials at the U.S. District Court during the first six months of 2004. Mayer-Whittington says there were 80 such trials the entire year in 2003.

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