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Congress finally passed a federal courts budget, and the worst did not come to pass, court officials say. But many details are unresolved, and Northern District administrators are still waiting to find out what the new numbers mean for them. “I think it’s too early to tell, but it could have been worse,” said Claudette Silvera, Northern District chief pretrial services officer. “If you’re expecting the worst, and it comes out a little better, then you’re OK.” The worst would have been a so-called “hard freeze.” The 2004 budget expired at the beginning of October, and administrators were worried that Congress wouldn’t pass a new budget until the beginning of the next congressional session in January. That would have forced courts to freeze expenditures at 2004 levels. Because several expenses, such as rent, automatically increase each year, courts would have been forced to make cuts in other areas to cover those mandatory costs. Now legislators have approved $5.42 billion for the federal judiciary, instead of the $5.7 billion courts had asked for. In the largest portion of the budget, salaries and expenses, the courts had wanted a 5.6 percent increase over 2004 levels. Instead, they got a 4.3 percent bump. The difference will prevent courts from growing to accommodate higher caseloads, but will not mean more layoffs, according to a news release from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. Northern District Clerk Richard Wieking called the 2005 budget “the most positive we could get [between] two bad outcomes.” In a statement released by his chambers, Chief Judge Vaughn Walker said Congress’s passing a budget was “a big help” but warned that things are still tight. The budget for the Northern District clerk’s office was $10.7 million in 2004. Although administrators in Washington, D.C., are still working out how to allocate the money approved by Congress, Wieking is expecting about $9.9 million. He hopes to find out by next week. “I am optimistic that we will not have to cut drastically,” Wieking said. “I know that the court values its employees and feels that we’ve already cut very deeply.” In the last year, budget cutbacks forced federal courts to cut their workforce by 6 percent. Locally, that translated into eight layoffs and six more unfilled positions within the clerk’s office, as well as belt-tightening at pretrial services, probation and the federal defender’s office.

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