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SAN FRANCISCO-Four months into the new fiscal year the federal judiciary’s budget remains frozen at the 2006 level of $6.1 billion, prompting dire predictions that courts could face a 12% staff cut nationally and run out of money to pay defense lawyers and jurors. Congress issued a resolution to keep funds at last year’s level until at least Feb. 15, its third continuing resolution while it resolves budgets for the fiscal year that began on Oct. 1, 2006. Leaders of the appropriations committees of both houses of Congress indicated in December they intend to “clear the decks quickly” of stalled 2007 budget items. But as late as Jan. 26, no deal had been made on court funding, but behind-the-scenes discussions may produce a budget that members of the House of Representatives can vote on as early as the last week of January, according to appropriations staff. Back in April, the judiciary asked for $6.26 billion for FY2007, a 9.4% increase above FY 2006. In the last two weeks, that has been cut by $231 million to roughly $6.03 billion, according to Karen Redmond, spokeswoman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. It is just $71 million more than the FY2006 budget limit. Redmond said a hiring freeze, curtailed training and equipment purchases allowed the lower request. If the current funding limits remain through to the end of FY2007, the administrative office predicts that there will be as many as 2,400 jobs cuts nationally, about 12% of the total work force in clerks’, probation and pretrial services offices, Redmond said. In addition, her office estimates that funds to pay private lawyers who represent indigent defendants would run out the last 10 weeks of the year, causing delays in payment until the 2008 fiscal year. And money for jury service will be exhausted by the end of August, she said. “When you take automatic raises for staff, that are statutory, and the rates of rent we have to pay, we wind up with the only area that has any give is staff jobs,” said Chief Judge Mary Schroeder of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. “Courts have to reduce staff to make up the automatic increases in the budget,” she said. In the largest district in the nation, the Los Angeles-based Central District of California, Chief Judge Alicemarie Stotler said the last time Congress issued an across-the-board 1% cut, in FY2004, courts lost 1,350 employees that year. The Central District serves 18 million people and covers 40,000 square miles. “Most districts never made up the shortfall because managers are afraid to hire and then tell that person a year later they’re fired,” Stotler said. She said her court has not been able to cut jury services to save money and must pull employees from other functions. “We’re robbing Peter to pay Paul,” she said. Stotler added that although her court has the most judicial vacancies of any U.S. trial court, with five, she has not been able to hire a magistrate judge. Other districts have faced similar circumstances. In the San Francisco-based Northern District of California, Clerk Richard Wieking said if the freeze holds through the year he would have to give up roughly $1 million of his $11.2 million annual budget. “In FY2004 we let go 18 people,” adding, “I don’t think that is where we’re headed this year.” Wieking said he has already cut back office hours and is not hiring for some positions. “We’re working at maximum capacity now,” he said. The Southern District of California in San Diego has not had the same stresses because Congress added five judge positions four years ago, increasing the budget allocation under a preset formula, according to Samuel Hamrick, clerk of the court. “It would be tight, but we have not hired all the positions we could,” he said, “and we’re not making any major purchases right now.”

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