Federal courts officials have appealed to Congress for emergency funding, saying the judiciary lacks the budget flexibility to absorb the large mandatory spending cuts that have forced furloughs in the nation’s federal public defender and court offices.
In a letter sent on May 14 to the White House Office of Management and Budget, the U.S. Judicial Conference said the courts need an emergency appropriation of $73 million — $41 million for federal public defenders and $32 million for court operations. The money would save 550 jobs in public defender and clerk offices, and prevent 24,000 furlough days for 5,000 employees, the letter says.
The request for emergency funding was linked in part to the Boston Marathon bombing case. Federal public defenders need $5 million for projected representation costs "for high-threat trials, including high-threat cases in New York and Boston." The defenders could have absorbed that burden had sequestration not gone into effect, the letter says.
The courts want to replace part of the $350 million sequestration cut to the federal courts budget, according to the letter signed by Judge Julia Gibbons of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, chairwoman of the judicial conference, and U.S. District Senior Judge Thomas Hogan, director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.
"The judiciary is confronting an unprecedented financial crisis that could seriously compromise the Constitutional mission of the United States courts," they wrote. "We believe our supplemental request meets the threshold for receiving an emergency designation."
The federal courts, the U.S. Depart­ment of Justice and other federal agencies have been sounding the alarm about sequestration cuts since last year. Since the cuts went into effect in March 2013, federal public defenders offices and court clerks have announced furloughs for employees.
Congress so far has restored cuts that affected air travel and allowed the Department of Justice to transfer money to avoid furloughs for prison officers, Federal Bureau of Investigation agents, prosecutors and other officials. So far, the courts have been afforded no such consideration.
"Unlike some executive branch entities, the judiciary has little flexibility to move funds between appropriation accounts to lessen the effect of sequestration," Gibbons and Hogan wrote.
Some $13 million of the emergency money would go directly to restoring public safety, they wrote. That would bring back half of the sequestration cuts for drug testing, substance abuse and mental health treatment for federal defendants and offenders. The request includes $28 million to avoid deferring for three weeks payments to private attorneys representing indigent defendants.
In a formal statement on April 17, Chief Judge William Traxler Jr. of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, chairman of the judicial conference’s executive committee, said the judiciary is committed to doing its part to reduce the nation’s budget deficit. But the sequestration prevents the courts from meeting their responsibilities under the Constitution, he said.
"This happens when we cannot afford to fulfill the Sixth Amendment right to representation for indigents charged with crimes," Traxler said. "The predictable result is that criminal prosecutions will slow and our legal system will not operate as efficiently. This will cost us all in many different ways."
The situation for lawyers in the Boston Marathon bombing illustrates those concerns. Lawyers with the federal public defender office in Boston representing Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the 19-year-old charged in the Boston bombing, are bracing for three weeks of furloughs. Tsarnaev’s lawyers would be allowed to work pro bono on furlough days.
The U.S. attorney’s office in Boston, on the other hand, is expected to operate at full strength. Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. said in late April that the department has managed to avoid furloughs — at least through September.
Todd Ruger is a reporter for The National Law Journal, a Legal affiliate based in NewYork.