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Federal court executives in South Florida and across the United States have begun to lay off and furlough workers as Congress looks for ways to prune a budget laden with national security expenses. As many as 1,000 court jobs are on the line nationwide, according to a spokesman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts in Washington, D.C. In the Southern District of Florida, which stretches from Fort Pierce to Key West, layoffs are under way. At the court clerk’s office, as many as 13 employees have been terminated or been told they face dismissal in the near future, according to Clerk of Court Clarence Maddox, who oversees a staff of about 165. The job outlook at the U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services offices is also poor, but less clear. At probation, officials said, three full-time temporary workers were recently let go, and layoffs of regular staff remain a possibility. Pretrial Services has so far avoided layoffs, but officials said that could change if grim budget forecasts hold true. While hundreds of court staffers nationwide face layoffs, many authorized-but-unfilled slots face abolition as a result of deep cuts agreed to by Senate and House conferees in Washington last month. What’s happening is unprecedented. “The judiciary has never before outright released employees because of budgetary constraints,” said U.S. Courts spokesman David Sellers. Judges, whose salaries enjoy constitutional protection, and their immediate staffs are not affected. In the Southern District of Florida, the biggest hit is being taken by the court clerk’s office. Maddox confirmed that layoffs have started there, and that they would likely continue through early next year. “We’ve talked about laying off as many as 12 or 13 people,” Maddox said. The total number of layoffs won’t be known until late January, he said. Maddox would not say how many employees he’s dismissed to date. Also, he declined to identify those employees, disclose their job titles or explain the criteria used to target them for dismissal. “We’ve given notice to all who have been or may be laid off,” Maddox said. Five vacant positions in the Southern District also will be left unfilled, and four employees are expected to take early retirement, Maddox said. “We’ve never had to go this far before,” Maddox said of the cuts. “We hope the folks who remain will do a little more to pick up the slack.” South Florida isn’t the only district where clerk jobs have been lost. U.S. Courts spokesman David Sellers said court employees were dismissed recently in federal court in California. Sellers said his office expects to get more information about layoffs from around the country in coming days. Court employees in South Florida who don’t lose their jobs will still feel budget pain. Maddox said he’s also ordering staffwide furloughs. “Employees will be asked to take two days off unpaid between now and the end of the fiscal year [next Sept. 30]. That includes me,” Maddox said. The furloughs most likely will be spread throughout the year, trimming an hour of work, and an hour of pay, for 16 pay periods. Other districts are also employing furloughs. “A few courts, New Jersey and Arizona for sure, furloughed employees the day after Thanksgiving. Some have talked about doing the same the day after Christmas and Jan. 2,” said Sellers. Still, annual raises of between 2 percent and 4 percent will remain in the national budget to salve employee pain. In South Florida, Maddox estimated that the savings package he’s developed should save nearly $600,000 if fully implemented. He said the Southern District’s anticipated annual funding under the current budget compromise is $14.1 million. That’s $1.6 million less than Maddox requested for FY 2004, and $900,000 less than last year’s actual budget of $15 million, he said. Notwithstanding such a sizable cut, or the recognition that the decline in court staff comes as new cases continue to climb to record levels, Maddox expects little practical impact on the day-to-day provision of services to either the public or the local U.S. District Court judges for whom he works. “I’m going to say I hope you don’t see it anyplace. We plan that you will not see it, but whether that comes to fruition remains to be seen,” Maddox said. Lawrence D. Goodman, a commercial litigator in Miami, is the chair of the Federal Court Practice Committee of The Florida Bar. He said the manpower cuts are unlikely to impact court services quickly but probably will as time goes by. “The Southern District has one of the largest volumes of cases in the country,” said Goodman, a partner at Devine Goodman Pallot & Wells. “The criminal docket has to move; the civil docket is increasing steadily. It could happen, especially if Congress passes the class action bill [federalizing all state class actions over $5 million]. Then you’d see a lot of new cases being filed, time-intensive cases with lots of filings.” One program has already taken a hit. That’s the local side of the U.S. judiciary’s new national case management system. The system, which allows push-button electronic delivery of case files to courthouses, is manpower-intensive to get information scanned into the system. But cuts have pushed some planning work back from January to July, Maddox said, and that will delay implementation another year. Events leading to today began earlier this year when the judiciary asked Congress for $4.19 billion to pay salaries, including judges’ salaries, and court expenses for 2004. That amount was 10 percent higher than 2003 funding, but was touted by the courts as only enough to keep pace with mandatory expenses over which it had no control. Over the summer, the House approved a 6.3 percent increase; the Senate a paltry 3.9 percent hike. Just before Thanksgiving Day, House and Senate conferees agreed to a 4.7 increase, or $3.95 billion. To make matters worse, $43 million in so-called “carryover” money won’t be available to the courts for 2004. Such money is normally available from last year’s funds and traditionally has been available to help pay for current programs. This week, Congress reconvenes and will consider the conference’s number as part of a giant omnibus appropriations bill involving a half-dozen other federal departments. If no agreement is reached, and some court observers said Democrats are unhappy, Congress won’t get another chance until it reconvenes Jan. 20 for the President’s State of the Union address. Meanwhile, the courts continue to operate under a continuing resolution of Congress. That’s left the nation’s federal court executives scrambling to figure out how to cope with looming shortfalls, Sellers said. In Miami, Chief U.S. Probation Officer Frank Schwartz said he’s been told to expect his annual budget to shrink by about 11 percent, from $21.3 million to $19.1 million. To cope, Schwartz said, he’s already discharged three full-time temporary receptionists. He’s also got his fingers crossed that planning, attrition and early retirement will keep his hand from being forced when the actual squeeze hits. “I’m an optimist, but [staff] layoffs are possible,” said Schwartz, who supervises 265 employees, including 175 probation officers. “I’m holding off on furloughs. I’m not ruling them out, but I’m not moving forward until I find out about the budget.” Chief Pretrial Services Officer Bonnie Phillips-Williams also was hopeful that none of her 49 people would be axed. But if her annual budget, now about $3.5 million, gets whacked by 11 percent “there may have to be layoffs.” In turn, that could hinder the ability to keep track of arrestees before trial. For years, through good times and bad, the courts have complained bitterly about congressional funding levels, including the lack of adequate raises for judges, and have warned of dire consequences. Never before, though, has the court system shed jobs because of budget cuts. In October, after it became clear that money had dried up for 2004 and that overall funding would be significantly below amounts needed to fund current requirements, the Administrative Office surveyed court clerks, probation chiefs and pretrial services officers around the country about the impact. “Many responded that the cumulative effect of several years of spending constraints had already taken a toll. Courts, they reported, have reached their limits, and with the prospect of even deeper cuts, as one clerk of court said, ‘the cracks are beginning to show,’” said the office’s October newsletter. But in places like South Florida, where court officials say the cuts aren’t likely to be noticed much by anyone other than the court’s own employees, it could be argued that the court was too fat to begin with. “I don’t think so,” said Maddox. “In situations like this people can come together and really excel for the short term, but I don’t think we can expect that kind of productivity for the long term.” If so, that spells more trouble a year from now. Top court officials in Washington, including Administrative Office Director Leonidas Ralph Mecham, have sent memos to every judge and court executive cautioning that they expect homeland security priorities and “austere budget constraints” imposed by Congress and President Bush as the budget deficit widens to “likely continue into fiscal year 2005.” Before that, though, the courts must sail through other rough waters. Juror pay and defender services for the indigent are particularly problematic, said Clerk Maddox. “When they ordinarily manifest is about three-quarters of the way through the fiscal year,” said Maddox. “That’s when the realization hits that there isn’t enough available to fund them, and an emergency appropriation is needed.”

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