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Rental costs have reached an all-time high and continue to soar. There’s an ongoing push to enhance security and a need for more staff to handle an unprecedented caseload. The federal judiciary estimates it will need nearly $6.3 billion to fund these and other operating expenses during the next fiscal year. The budget request was submitted to Congress earlier this month as part of the White House’s plan for fiscal year 2007. The judicial branch, which devises its own budget proposal without input from the White House, is asking for a 9.4 percent boost in spending from fiscal year 2006. The budget includes funding for all federal courts, including the Supreme Court, and various judicial offices and agencies, such as the U.S. Sentencing Commission and the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. Last year the judiciary asked for $5.95 billion, and Congress ultimately approved $5.7 billion. But despite receiving nearly a quarter billion less than requested, the judiciary still fared better than in previous years, says Chief Judge Thomas Hogan of the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia. “The past few years have definitely been severe,” Hogan says, adding that the budget approved for fiscal year 2006 was the most generous in years. Over the past three years, Congress has approved, on average, about $270 million less each year than the judicial branch requested. When asked about the outlook for the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1, Hogan, who chairs the Judicial Conference’s Executive Committee, was cautiously optimistic: “I have hope because Congress understands the needs of the judiciary, but I do have concerns.” Representatives of the federal judiciary are scheduled to testify before Congress on March 16 to defend the proposal. Of the $540 million in additional funding requested, 86 percent of the increase is needed just to maintain current services, according to documents provided by the Administrative Office. Mandatory pay raises associated with inflation, as well as the rising costs of health insurance and other employee benefits, would absorb the biggest chunk. Another significant portion of the increase is earmarked to offset the escalating cost of occupying current courthouses and offices � a topic that’s sparked heated debate among judges, lawmakers, and the U.S. General Services Administration, the agency that manages real estate for the government. The judiciary currently spends nearly 16 percent of its budget on rent. The Department of Justice, by comparison, spends about 3 percent on rent, and the entire executive branch spends less than 1 percent. In his year-end report on the judiciary, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. wrote: “The disparity between the judiciary’s rent and that of other government agencies, and between the cost to GSA of providing space and the amount charged to the judiciary, is unfair. The federal judiciary cannot continue to serve as a profit center for GSA.” During fiscal year 2005 the judiciary paid $926 million to GSA, when the actual cost for providing the space was $426 million. By 2009 the judiciary is expected to spend $1.2 billion on rent, a staggering amount that would consume more than a quarter of its entire operating budget. Earlier this month a number of lawmakers proposed legislation to address the issue. The Judiciary Reform Act, introduced in the House on Feb. 8, would require the GSA to charge the judicial branch for only the actual cost of providing the space. But F. Joseph Moravec, former commissioner of the GSA’s public buildings service, opposes the measure, saying it’s necessary to charge a fee approximate to the commercial fair-market value. “A short-term budget condition experienced by one tenant agency should not be a reason to undermine successful operation of a revolving fund,” Moravec testified at a congressional hearing on the matter last year. He added that the judiciary’s 2,159 courtrooms and 461 office buildings are of an especially high quality, which is another reason its rental costs are higher than those of other government agencies. In a push to offset costs, the judiciary has taken drastic steps to remain financially stable. Roberts noted in his report that “Escalating rents combined with across-the-board cuts imposed during fiscal years 2004 and 2005 resulted in a reduction of approximately 1,500 judicial branch employees as of mid-December when compared to October 2003.” But officials warn that such cutbacks can’t continue when the court system’s workload keeps growing due to a rise in criminal, class-action, and immigration cases, as well as an onslaught of resentencings prompted by the Supreme Court’s decision in U.S. v. Booker. “We went through a very severe budget crisis and lost a tremendous amount of employees,” Hogan says. “I don’t know that we could lose any more and not be hurt.” As a result of personnel shortages, many federal courthouses reduced office hours last year. The proposed budget attempts to reverse that trend. Nearly $25 million is being sought to boost staffing, including the addition of 232 support staff and 25 law clerks to handle death penalty cases and other criminal matters. In fiscal year 2007 the federal judiciary is looking to nearly double its spending on new court-security equipment. Funding for advanced security equipment, such as mail-screening devices, has jumped from $10 million in 2005 to $18 million in 2006 to a proposed $33 million this year. The total proposed amount for the federal courts’ security program is $410 million, a $40 million jump. THE D.C. EQUATION Unlike the federal judiciary, which makes its budget request directly to Congress, the D.C. courts must submit requests to the White House. The proposal is then revised and included as part of the president’s budget plan. The top priority for D.C. courts next fiscal year is continuing to renovate and improve court buildings around historic Judiciary Square. More than half of the D.C. courts’ total request for $335 million was slated to go toward the improvements. President George W. Bush, however, countered with just $51 million for capital projects. The courts’ capital-improvements request took the largest hit in the president’s proposed bare-bones budget for the local court system. But on the whole, the request for operating expenses to fund the D.C. Court of Appeals, the D.C. Superior Court, and other court operations remained largely intact, with the president shaving about $15 million from the request, resulting in a $146 million proposal. Court officials declined to discuss the proposed budget, citing their upcoming congressional hearing, also scheduled for next month. Still, many of the courts’ top priorities received the White House’s blessing. The president’s budget provides funds to complete the centerpiece of the capital improvement project, the renovation of the Old Courthouse, which began last spring. The building will become the new home of the D.C. Court of Appeals. In addition, Bush’s budget provides money to renovate space for a juvenile holding area; to modernize “Building A,” which houses the probate division; and to upgrade plumbing and electrical systems inside the H. Carl Moultrie Courthouse. Some of those improvements can’t come soon enough. Just last Thursday, the Superior Court was forced to shut down due to an electrical problem caused by a transformer in the Judiciary Square area. And a few projects will have to wait, including repairing escalators and improving restrooms in the Superior Court and building a new parking garage. Some security concerns are addressed in the proposed budget, which includes money to add U.S. marshals to Family Court and to upgrade fire and security systems. Funds were not provided, however, for enhanced perimeter security or additional security officers. One of the largest new requests in the Superior Court section of the budget is for $940,000 to enhance services for mentally retarded individuals. Whether that request survives in the final budget remains to be seen. During the past few years, D.C. court officials have unsuccessfully sought funding to raise the pay for court-appointed attorneys. Again the attempt appears futile. The courts requested an increase from $65 to $90 an hour to compete with the federal courts across the street. But in his budget the president proposed only $43 million for defender services, which is $1 million less than last year and $11 million less than the court requested, leaving nothing for the pay increases. “It has been that way for years,” says Betty Ballester, president of the Superior Court Trial Lawyers Association. She believes the money gets bumped because the panel has higher priorities, such as implementing a new computer system.
Sarah Kelley can be contacted at [email protected]. Bethany Broida can be contacted at [email protected].

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