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Anticipating a substantial budget shortfall in the next fiscal year, the Judicial Conference of the United States last week approved $225 million in cost-cutting measures, including substantial layoffs and a moratorium that will freeze plans for 42 new federal courthouses. Between 2,000 and 4,800 judicial employees may be laid off in the fiscal year that begins on Oct. 1, said Carolyn Dineen King, chief judge of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and chairwoman of the executive committee of the Judicial Conference, the policy-making body of the judiciary. The conference approved the cuts unanimously. “This comes at a very great cost to our system,” King told reporters following the conference’s private meeting at the Supreme Court. Hardest hit initially may be probation offices, where layoffs that took place this year have already slowed the preparation of pre-sentence reports and created a logjam of defendants awaiting sentencing. Supervision of released prisoners may be limited to only the most serious felons because of layoffs. Life during wartime King ascribed the judiciary’s budget crunch to “huge” wartime budget deficits that leave Congress unable to fund the courts at anywhere near the level needed to maintain current services. The problem arises because Congress may pass a continuing resolution to keep funding for the judiciary and other agencies at fiscal 2004 levels, a hard freeze that would be “devastating” to the courts, according to a letter sent to Congress last week by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who heads the conference. The judiciary needs 6% more than it received last year just to maintain current services. The House approved $4.2 billion for judiciary salaries and expenses for next year in July, a 5.6% increase over last year. Last week, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved $4.1 billion. But if agreement cannot be reached, a continuing resolution that would last weeks or months is still possible. The 42 early-stage projects that will be halted by the moratorium, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, include Rochester and Syracuse, N.Y.; Philadelphia and Harrisburg, Pa.; Wilmington, Del.; Dallas and Houston; Fort Lauderdale, Panama City and West Palm Beach, Florida; Macon, Ga.; and San Jose, Calif.

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