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Budget pinching has prompted federal court clerks’ offices across the country to curtail public hours of operation, with at least one Mississippi clerk’s office shuttered to save money, according to a survey by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. While Congress mandates annual wage increases to court staff, the pay hikes have not been funded, forcing courts to take money from operations in other areas or reduce staff numbers through layoffs, attrition and retirement. At least 36 district and bankruptcy courts have curtailed office hours in 76 locations nationwide in the last two years, according to the survey. Some have closed branch offices while they figure out ways to cope with fewer staff members, according to Richard Carelli, a spokesman for the administrative office. Most cut back 30 minutes to an hour at the beginning and end of each day. In the Northern District of Texas, court clerk Karen Mitchell said that the staff works from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., but the office is only open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays. “It is inconvenient for a lot of customers,” she said. But shorter hours “enables us to get work done without interruption,” she said. The district cut nine positions over the last fiscal year but still has to keep up with docketing and providing courtroom staff to judges. Stress level ‘enormous’ Victoria Minor, chief deputy clerk in New Haven, Conn., said the time involved for quality control for electronic document filing by lawyers is “beyond belief.” “We can’t trust the lawyers to do it right. We are their safety net,” she said. She lost three people through attrition yet still has to support 18 judges on the court. The five magistrates often go without court stenographers, using tape recordings instead. “Nobody in my office has just one job. Courtroom deputies are also doing docketing and managing case files. The luxury of just having a docket clerk, I don’t know what that is like,” Minor said. “The stress level in our office is enormous,” she said. The Eastern District of Virginia has limited public hours to 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, cut back from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. before November 2004. “We cut the clerk’s staff 10% over the course of 2004 and to provide the remaining staff the time [to handle the workload] we felt this was the most sensible way to deal with it,” said Edward Adams, spokesman for the court in Alexandria, Va. He pointed out that lawyers are allowed to file after hours at a drop box but the court does not have any means for lawyers to file electronically at this point. Meanwhile, the clerk’s office for the Northern District of Mississippi closed one of its three offices, in Greenville, to all public access on Sept. 30, leaving only a public-access computer terminal, case-file microfiche cards and a photocopier in the clerk’s office lobby. “This closing is attributable to federal fiscal constraints requiring reductions in . . . court-support personnel,” according to a statement posted on the court Web site. Closures and cutback in hours has no relation to storm damage from Hurricane Katrina, which displaced 400 federal court employees in the region, according to Carelli. The survey may be the court’s first salvo in the budget battles with Congress for more money.

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