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A letter sent to members of Congress by California federal judges predicts that the Northern District will have to lay off nearly 20 percent of the clerk’s office later this year if a budget does not arrive on time. The problem, according to a letter signed by Chief Judge Marilyn Hall Patel and chief judges in three other California districts, is that delays would further harm courts that have already taken significant budget hits. “The fiscal year 2004 budget was very damaging to the courts. � The predictions regarding fiscal year 2005 are so dire that we can assure you that if they come to pass, each of the district courts in California will have no choice but to drastically cut services to the public,” according to the letter, which was addressed to Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska. It was also sent to every member of California’s congressional delegation. A House subcommittee has proposed $5.2 billion for the judiciary next year. The judges say they can make that work, but only if the budget is passed on time. If not, then the courts will continue at 2004 funding levels. Once the new fiscal year begins in October, courts are required to pay for raises and other mandatory increases. Continuing with a 2004 budget means administrators would have to find money other ways, such as cutting clerk positions, reducing probation staff, not paying jurors — even withholding money for lawyers appointed to indigent cases. “We’ve already cut to the bone,” said Southern District Chief Judge Marilyn Huff. “[Congress] is giving us a Hobson’s choice.” The judges sent the letter just in time to cast a shadow over the annual Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals Judicial Conference, which begins today in Monterey. Huff said the chief judges plan to get together to discuss what to do about the budget. Their options are limited. Beyond issuing dire predictions and cutting staff, courts have little control over their own budgets, which are set by legislators and the president. If cuts continue, the courts will have a difficult time keeping up with an increase in the number of court filings. “As we have seen in many of our sister state courts who are suffering from budget cuts, it is inevitable that clerk’s office hours will have to be reduced so that staff can focus on data input and other (non-public) duties critical to keeping the court running,” according to the letter.

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