The nation’s federal courts are slashing spending on things like court security, federal public defenders and court staff salaries – and might even temporarily halt civil jury trials later this year – because of the federal budget cuts that went into effect March 1.
The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts sent out a complete list of emergency cost-cutting measures to local courts in late February, when it became clear that Congress would not avert the across-the-board cuts, called sequestration. Court administrators publicly released the information on March 8.
The Executive Committee of the Judicial Conference approved the measures to absorb about $350 million in cut to the nation’s courts. The largest portion, $93 million, will come from salaries, with local courts left to figure out whether that would require court closings, furloughs or layoffs.
In a March 5 letter to Congress, office director Thomas Hogan said the cuts could result in up to 2,000 layoffs nationwide, or "thousands of employees facing furloughs for one day each pay period," for a 10 percent pay cut.
"These budget reductions to the judiciary will have serious implications for the administration of justice and the rule of law," Hogan wrote in the letter, sent to the House and Senate appropriations and judiciary committees.
In its guidance to courts, the office urged districts and circuits with any budget flexibility to delay personnel actions until April, since those "cannot be ‘undone.’ " Administrators retain hope that Congress will undo all or some of the budget cuts soon so that the courts can avoid many of these cost-cutting steps.
The office said Hogan and Judge Julia Gibbons, chairwoman of the Judicial Conference’s budget committee, were scheduled to testify on March 20 about the fiscal health of the courts before a House Appropriations subcommittee.
"They plan to inform the subcommittee of the negative impact that these measures will have on the judiciary and reiterate that they are not sustainable in future years," the document says. "Many of these measures are temporary, one-time reductions that cannot be repeated if future funding levels decline."
The office’s other emergency measures include a wide variety of program reductions targeting judicial training and travel plus information technology used in case processing. They call for deferring funding of circuit judicial conferences, which several senators criticized last year following the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit’s gathering in Hawaii.
Money for drug testing and mental health treatment will be cut by 20 percent, and delays in the processing of civil and bankruptcy cases could threaten economic recovery, Hogan wrote to Congress.
Money for federal defender organizations would be reduced by $53 million, which "could compromise the integrity of the defender function," Hogan wrote. Allocations for defender salaries would be reduced by 4 percent, non-salary funds by 25 percent and training funds by 50 percent. Payment of Criminal Justice Act panel attorney vouchers could be deferred for almost three weeks at the end of the fiscal year.
Administrators must cut $26 million from court security, which Hogan said would create "vulnerabilities" throughout the court system. The office called upon local courts to reduce security by 25 hours per officer, and reduce spending on security systems and equipment by 30 percent.
The office said it was working closely at the national level with the Department of Justice, where the possibility of furloughs also might affect court security and operations. The U.S. Marshals Service announced a 14-day furlough for its employees, and it was still unclear how the cuts would affect the litigation divisions at the Justice Department and U.S. attorneys’ offices, the office said.
Attorney General Eric Holder Jr., in a letter to Congress in February, estimated the budget cuts would cause the department to lose more than 1,000 federal agents to combat violent crime, pursue financial crimes and help ensure national security, as well as 1,300 federal correctional officers.
The $100 million that would be cut from U.S. attorneys’ office budgets would mean 2,600 fewer cases could be pursued than during the last fiscal year, including 1,600 fewer civil cases and 1,000 fewer criminal cases, Holder wrote.
And if the courts still fall short, halting civil courts could make up about $3 million, the office said. "Absent alternatives, civil jury trials may have to be suspended under sequestration for approximately four weeks beginning in September 2013," the office said.
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