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When Congress five years ago began authorizing more money to catch illegal immigrants and drug smugglers crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, it didn’t similarly increase funding for the federal courts that have to process the resulting defendants. That disparity has caused a crisis in courts along the border, federal judges from Texas, California, New Mexico, and Arizona said on Capitol Hill Thursday. They told lawmakers of exploding criminal caseloads and the problems that occur throughout the justice system, and asked for increased funding and as many as 16 new judgeships to help handle the caseload. “They haven’t funded the entire system,” said Carolyn Dineen King, chief judge of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Texas. The delegation of judges spent Thursday meeting with representatives from the border states to lobby for their cause. King, who’s based in Houston, became chief judge a year ago and soon learned the problem her district judges were having at the border. She said she spent a week in Texas visiting courts in Laredo, Del Rio, and El Paso, where she saw 50 manacled defendants sitting in courtrooms because the court didn’t have enough holding cells. To house the defendants, the courts pay county jails further north, causing problems for the defendants’ lawyers. “They have to drive hundreds of miles just to have a meeting with their clients,” King said of the federal public defenders and appointed lawyers, who usually get paid less than $75 an hour for the work. As a result of Congress’ Southwest Border Initiative, the criminal caseload in the border courts has increased 125 percent since 1994, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. Those five federal district courts now handle 26 percent of the criminal cases in the entire federal court system, the AOC said on Thursday. Marilyn Huff, chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, said, “If you put 1,000 law enforcement people on the border, that creates more work” for the justice system downstream. She said defendants — who are often more violent than run-of-the-mill illegal aliens looking for jobs — are detained before trial in facilities as far away as Oklahoma and Washington State. King — who was joined by District Judges George Kazen, Edward Prado, and W. Royal Furgeson Jr. of Texas; John Edwards Conway of New Mexico; and Stephen McNamee of Arizona — said that despite the distance problems, the defendants are getting effective representation. But Prado, who was once the federal public defender and U.S. attorney in San Antonio, allowed that effective representation “is a concern.” He said the first thing he often must do when he convenes court is let the lawyers meet with their clients because they have had very little time to discuss their cases. King said the border courts need 16 more judgeships to handle the new criminal cases, but more immediately are seeking an 8.5 percent increase in funding for the federal judiciary. A 6 percent increase would keep the federal judiciary at current staffing levels, she said, with the remaining 2.5 percent going mostly to fund the border courts. In total, the federal judiciary is seeking $4.6 billion for fiscal year 2001, which the AOC says is only two-tenths of one percent of the entire federal budget. The prognosis for such an increase does not look good, however. The House Appropriations Committee has effectively frozen funding levels for the subcommittee that oversees funding for the federal judiciary, as well as the Justice, State, and Commerce departments. For one group to get more money this year, said a spokesman for subcommittee chairman Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), “they have to come from other accounts.”

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