Just six weeks ago, Congress took last-minute action to avert automatic across-the-board federal budget cuts that would have significantly harmed the federal court system and legal assistance programs for the poor.
With the new March 1 deadline, the federal judiciary and the Legal Services Corp. (LSC) continue to find themselves in dangerous fiscal waters. Their day-to-day operations are threatened by cuts that will devastate the ability of businesses to resolve their disputes, for the middle class to be heard on civil rights and bankruptcy cases, and for our most vulnerable citizens to secure access to justice.
That is why the New York State Bar Association will be proposing a resolution at the upcoming American Bar Association midyear meeting on Monday, February 11, that urges the ABA, the national voice of the profession, to speak out and condemn these cuts.
Our representatives in Washington need to know that the legal profession considers the federal courts and the LSC to be vital to the fabric of our democracy. Passage of such a resolution would offer the vital support these institutions need at a critical time.
The 1985 Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act required mandatory federal budget cuts under sequestration if Congress failed to meet specific deficit-reduction goals. It did not meet those goals in 2011, thus triggering the potential cuts.
Last year, the Office of Management and Budget reported that sequestration would require slashing funding for federal courts and the Legal Services Corp. by 8.2 percent.
While an 8.2 percent reduction seems large, the cuts could actually be much more drastic. As noted in a letter of November 30, 2012, from Thomas Hogan, secretary of the Judicial Conference, to Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), the federal courts have mandatory costs that make up more than 40 percent of their expenses. These costs must be paid in full. For some courts, these mandatory costs are well above 40 percent.
Judge Julia Gibbons of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, the chair of the Committee on the Budget of the Judicial Conference of the United States, has said the judiciary’s budget could be cut by more than $500 million below the 2012 funding level. A reduction of this magnitude, she said, "would cripple the operation of the federal Judiciary and our constitutional mission would be compromised due to these sudden, arbitrary budget cuts."
If these automatic budget cuts or similar cuts reached by agreement are implemented, there will be immediate and profound disruptions in the resolution of business and commercial disputes, bankruptcies, employment, immigration and other matters.
Staff reductions will interrupt and delay the disposition of business litigation, reducing the ability of companies to resolve their differences in a timely manner and potentially affecting profitability and employment security during this particularly difficult economic period.The resulting cutbacks and delays will undermine the confidence of international businesses in our justice system to resolve international commercial disputes, thus giving an advantage to other countries that would serve that important function.
Based on a 2011 report, the judiciary anticipated that cuts of just 7.8 percent would have required staff reductions of 4,400 employees, the furloughing of all court staff for at least four weeks or a combination of furloughs and staff reductions. This would have been in addition to a reduction of 1,100 employees since July 2011. Sequestration calls for an 8.2 percent cut, meaning that even deeper cutbacks will be required.
The further workforce loss would significantly affect the daily operation of the court system, as well as the local economies of the communities in which the courts are located. Court hours and security would be reduced. Civil jury trials would be extensively delayed.
The impact of sequestration also will be felt in the delivery of legal services through the Legal Services Corp. The LSC provides assistance to combat veterans, domestic violence victims, victims of natural disasters, people with disabilities, people in danger of losing their homes to foreclosure and many others in need.
More than 63 million Americans, including 22 million children, qualify for civil legal assistance. If funding for the Legal Services Corp. is slashed, legal representation for the poor and elderly and for those affected by unforeseen economic challenges would be significantly reduced or eliminated.
An 8.2 percent sequestration cut would come on top of already devastating cutbacks to the program. The current $348 million budget is $72 million below the $420 million allocated in 2010.At this time, with major reductions in all government programs being discussed, there is no assurance that LSC will even survive.
Our federal courts are vital to the operation and preservation of our democracy. Yet the judiciary’s budget represents substantially less than 1 percent of the entire federal budget.
With other federal agencies and departments facing cutbacks, it would be easy for the courts and the Legal Services Corp. to be pushed aside in favor of other priorities.
That is why we need a strong national voice standing up for their protection. And that is why the New York State Bar Association is asking the American Bar Association to lend its strong voice to the cause for maintaining these vital services.
Seymour W. James Jr. is president of the New York State Bar Association.