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Congress needs to restore funding to the federal court system or risk problems like lengthy case delays, inadequate counsel for criminal defendants and reduced safety at courthouses, an official with the Judicial Conference of the United States told a congressional panel March 20.

Judge Julia Gibbons of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, the chair of the judicial conference’s budget committee, testified on Capitol Hill that she is "more concerned than ever" about how well the justice system can function after the $350 million cuts to the courts, part of broader mandatory cuts called sequestration.

As she’s noted before, Gibbons said the emergency measures to deal with the cuts are "unsustainable, difficult and painful to implement," but this time she delivered the remarks directly to Congress as part of the 2014 budget process.

"I am not a fan of hyperbole and I avoid it," Gibbons said. "It is no hyperbole when I say we have deep concern about our ability to fulfill our constitutional mission."

The federal courts have requested Congress restore funding levels to the federal courts’ 2014 budget, as well as provide a $180 million increase from the 2013 budget. The 2.6 percent increase is one of the smallest budget increase requests from the courts, but money is hard to come by while Congress looks to cut federal spending.

"It’s still going to be tough because of the fiscal situation we find ourselves in," said Representative Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.), the chairman of the Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee.

Gibbons testified that the courts do not have programs it can cut or work it can ignore, because all of the work is assigned by the Constitution and laws. "We look to Congress to recognize the uncontrollable nature of our workload and provide the resources needed to perform this essential work," Gibbons said.

The federal public defender services program will be particularly hard hit because there are few areas to cut other than personnel and rent expenses. The courts expect significant staff furloughs and delays in paying private attorneys as part of the program. "These cuts will affect the judiciary’s ability to provide quality defense counsel for indigent defendants," Gibbons said.

The subcommittee’s ranking member, Representative Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.) said he was particularly worried about the "troubling scenario" in which a lack of funding could undermine the public defender program. "That’s something that’s different about us than a lot of other countries," he noted.

The largest share of the sequestration cuts, $93 million, would come from salaries, as previously reported by The National Law Journal. Court officials in each district will have to decide whether to achieve the cuts by closing courts, furloughing employees, or layoffs.

The judiciary has estimated that the cuts could mean that 2,000 employees are laid off this year, or face furloughs for one day each pay period, which would be the equivalent of a 10 percent pay cut.

Contact Todd Ruger at truger@alm.com.

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