Judges and lawyers went to Capitol Hill on Tuesday to once again warn of the dangers of inadequate federal court funding, even as lawmakers moved forward with bills that would restore budget cuts that are crippling the nation’s public defender and clerk offices.
Judge Julia Gibbons of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and chairwoman of the U.S. Judicial Conference’s budget committee, told a Senate subcommittee that the nearly $350 million in cuts to the courts this year under the across-the-board government spending reductions called sequestration, have been “devastating” and “painful.”
Clerks and probation and pretrial offices will lose as many as 1,000 staff and implement 8,600 furlough days during 2013, Gibbons said, which will slow civil and bankruptcy cases and harm public safety and effective representation by counsel.
“If funding levels remain flat or decline, it compromises the constitutional mission of the courts,” Gibbons testified, an argument she has been using since March while asking Congress for more money.
Michael Nachmanoff, federal public defender for the Eastern District of Virginia, said that the nation’s federal defender system has lost than 200 employees and will be even worse off when the new budget starts on October 1, 2013.
Federal defenders will be forced to terminate up to half their employees and close branch offices if funding stays at the same level, Nachmanoff told the Senate Subcommittee on Bankruptcy and the Courts.
“If action is not taken immediately to save the program, the federal defender system will be devastated,” Nachmanoff said.
Apparently, Congress agrees. Last week, the House Appropriations Committee approved a fiscal year 2014 appropriations bill that includes $6.5 billion for the courts, roughly the same level it was in 2013, before sequestration cuts hit. The fiscal year begins on October 1.
And on Tuesday, a Senate appropriations subcommittee approved $6.7 billion for the courts, an increase of $148 million or 2.2 percent above the fiscal year 2013 level. “It restores severe cuts to Federal Defender offices and ensures that they are adequately staffed,” a bill summary says.
Still, there was sharp disagreement between other budget priorities for the House, Senate and White House, Gibbons said during the hearing. Those conflicts could lead to yet another partisan battle in Congress that ends with a continuing resolution that either keeps the sequestration cuts or otherwise keeps the federal courts budget flat.
“If the funding disputes cannot be resolved and Congress instead chooses to pursue a continuing resolution, we would appreciate this subcommittee’s support of a funding anomaly or exception that would fund us above a hard freeze in 2014,” Gibbons said.
The hearing’s title, “Sequestering Justice: How the Budget Crisis is Undermining Our Courts,” irked Senator Jeff Sessions, the ranking Republican on the subcommittee.
“I think the title of this—what is it, 'Sequestering justice'?—is a bit over the top from my perspective,” Sessions said. “I think most courts are delivering justice today just as well as they were before these cuts took place.”
Todd Ruger is a reporter for The National Law Journal, a Legal affiliate based in New York.