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The federal courts have been doing relatively well in the current budget cycle on Capitol Hill — at least so far. Top judicial officials remain hopeful that they’ll emerge from the budget process this fall with their wish lists intact. But it promises to be a struggle. Last month, a House appropriations committee handed the judiciary a 6.3 percent increase in total funding, considerably less than the 11.7 percent boost that the Judicial Conference of the United States had requested. “We’re grateful for what the House did. That is a good increase,” says Chief Judge Carolyn Dineen King of the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. King sits in Houston. But King, whose circuit has had to cope with a dramatically increased criminal caseload because of tougher law enforcement on the Mexican border, says a six percent hike falls short of what border courts need to keep up. “This will fund current operations but will not fund our need to bring operations on the border to an adequate level,” King says. “Hopefully, we can get an increased level of funding in a conference committee.” Since the Senate appropriations panel has not yet acted, final action will have to await lawmakers’ return to Washington in early September after a long break for the national political conventions. Last spring, King and other judges from the Southwest flew to Washington to lobby Congress for increased funding and for as many as 16 new judgeships. A pending bill would authorize new judges for federal courts in the Southwest, where illegal immigration and drug cases have swamped the courts. King says the most acute problem is court staffing. “We simply can’t fund our probation and pretrial services the way we want to,” King says. “Each district judge is now doing the work of two or three. But that’s not the real problem. They need the staff. They need the infrastructure to do it. That’s driven by the number of cases.” The House committee report recognizes that criminal cases in the Southwest have increased by 125 percent in the six years since Congress decided to crack down on illegal aliens and drug smugglers — and that the number of court staffers has risen by only 30 percent. “The funds made available may fall short of the amounts needed to address this growing workload,” the report concedes. But it also notes that in the past, the federal judiciary has creatively moved money around, pressing into service funds that had been appropriated for other purposes and turned out not to be needed. “Last year, we borrowed money from a number of different accounts,” King says, “but that method of financing won’t work forever.” The total amount of funding approved by the House panel for the federal judiciary in the 2001 fiscal year is just above $4.2 billion. That’s an increase of nearly $250 million from the current year but is $214 million less than the judiciary’s request. The federal courts have been getting busier, and not just in the Southwest. Data from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts show that federal criminal cases have increased by 28 percent in the last four years; the number of pretrial services reports to the courts have increased by 24 percent; and the number of offenders under supervision has gone up by 12 percent. IN DEFENSE OF THE DEFENSE In addition to more money for the border courts, court officials had proposed a boost of $55 million in the funding for “defender services.” This budget item pays for the federal public defender offices across the nation and for private lawyers who represent indigent defendants in federal criminal cases under the Criminal Justice Act (CJA). This 14.4 percent increase, from $385 million to $440 million, would have permitted the federal courts to raise the rates for these lawyers to $75 an hour. Currently, they receive $70 an hour for court time but just $50 an hour for out-of-court time. The House committee split the difference, proposing a raise to $75 an hour in court and $55 an hour out of court. Instead of the $55 million boost, it went for a $35 million increase in this category. King says this is not enough. “We have tried to maintain the private sector as a provider of legal services,” she says. “But it’s hard to attract people at these rates, which are far below prevailing rates for criminal defense lawyers. Even in lower-cost areas of the country, the private rates are $125 or $130 an hour. Even $75 an hour for all time spent would hardly be a princely sum.” Says Judge Richard Arnold of the 8th Circuit, a former head of the Judicial Conference’s budget committee, “It’s important that these lawyers be properly paid. Human nature is such that one who is paid an adequate wage is in a better frame of mind and is therefore likely to do a better job for the client.” In its formal budget request, the Judicial Conference wrote that “when CJA panel hourly rates do not even cover overhead costs, the defense function is undermined. . . . The failure to implement the $75 rate is leading toward a crisis in the federal criminal justice system.” Still, the across-the-board raise of $5 an hour that the House panel approved would be the second consecutive increase. In fiscal 2000, Congress approved a $5-per-hour boost to the current levels of $70 and $50 per hour. X-RAY VISION The third item on the judiciary’s wish list is courtroom security. In fiscal 2000, the federal courts spent $201 million on security, which included nearly $8 million in money left over from fiscal 1999. The judiciary asked for a 7.2 percent increase to $215 million to pay for 72 new security officers, to install new digital radios for courthouse buildings, and to replace and upgrade X-ray and metal detectors. Instead, the House committee bumped court security back to $198 million, which it said would provide “no program enhancements.” Finally, the judiciary had proposed a 3.7 percent cost-of-living salary increase for federal judges. The committee took no action on that request, electing to “defer it without prejudice.”

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