As the Washington budget brinksmanship known as sequestration nears a March 1 deadline, federal judges and court officials in New York are bracing for cuts in funding they say will have a marked effect on the efficiency of court operations and public safety.
From pretrial services and probation officers, to interpreters, to staffing in the clerks’ offices, officials say the danger is that the forced budget cuts from sequestration would come on top of reductions that have already strained services over the last few years. The result, they fear, will be employee furloughs, slower courthouse operations and, possibly, the suspension of civil trials.
"We are barely limping along with the double digit-cuts we’ve seen the last two years," Southern District Chief Judge Loretta Preska (See Profile) said yesterday. "We are so far past the muscle and into the bone here—I don’t know how we can continue to provide the services we are constitutionally required to provide."
In Brooklyn, Eastern District Chief Judge Carol Amon (See Profile), like her counterparts across the country, is awaiting word from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts on the depth of the cuts, but they are working on an assumption of a 4 percent cut in salaries, on top of the 10 percent budget reduction imposed for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.
Amon said the courts, despite working with leaner budgets, have minimum requirements that cannot be ignored. Cases are filed, defendants are charged and the courts are in no position to turn business away.
"We are talking about a branch of government, not the Department of Education," Amon said.
Prosecutors and staff in the U.S. attorneys’ offices and other executive agencies have already received notice of possible furloughs.
In the courts, Eastern District Clerk of the Court Douglas Palmer said furloughs might be one day per month for the fiscal year, but because the year is half complete, employees might have to be furloughed for two days a month to make up the difference.
Palmer and his fellow court officials are used to uncertainty—the courts have been funded by continuing resolutions since 2009—but this is new territory.
"We don’t know what our budget is—it could completely change or they could make up the difference for sequestration when they finish the budget," Palmer said. "The problem is, once somebody takes a furlough, they can’t take it back."
Palmer was set to meet with his managers yesterday to continue contingency planning for March 1 and beyond. The next big date on the calendar is March 27, when Congress will once again have to reach agreement on the debt limit and pass a continuing budget resolution.
"The budget is a little bit of a moving target, but Congress has to do something regardless," he said. "Ideally, they should come up with a deal that finishes this fiscal year."
‘It’s Going to Be Much Slower’
Southern District Executive Edward Friedland said guidance should come from the Administrative Office, perhaps as soon as today. In the meantime, he is hoping to shift non-salary monies to salaries to avoid furloughs.
But if there is no change from current projections, he said, employees would have to take 12 days of furloughs before Oct. 1.
"It certainly is going to result in a cut in services if we have to go to furloughs," he said. "It’s going to be much slower at the courthouse."
If the news is worse, Friedland said, "there’s talk of suspending civil jury trials in September, because we’d have no money to pay the jurors."
The probation departments and pretrial services have been especially hard hit the last few years, with staff reductions coming through attrition and early retirements and buyouts. As of March 2012, the number of probation officers in Brooklyn had already declined to 108 from 119 four years ago. In Manhattan, the number dropped to 95 from 112. Support staff in both districts shrunk to mid-30s from the mid-40s.
Pretrial services reports are critical for judges in making decisions on bail and probation officers are key to reducing recidivism. Unannounced searches by probation officers can uncover guns and ammunition, child pornography and, often, drugs.
"One thing you could do is furlough administrative staff, but if that happened, you’d have to pull your officers off of their regular duties because administrative tasks have to be done," Preska said. "You would see fewer drug tests, less time on presentence reports, longer times for sentencing."
But Preska also said that part of the sequester is for "law enforcement funds," which include everything from drug treatment, mental health evaluations and sex offender treatment to "something as simple as gas for the cars when agents go out to do searches."
"We’ll have people walking around who need treatment—particularly at a time when we are focusing on the relationship between mental health and firearms," she said. "The public safety will really be at risk."
The bankruptcy court is also under pressure in the Southern District, Preska warned, and further cuts could lead to a slower adjudication that could prevent a company from getting on its feet quickly and, thus, cost people jobs.
The legal community is alarmed about the impact of further cuts in the system. Two weeks ago, the American Bar Association passed a resolution calling on the president and Congress to adequately fund the courts and legal assistance to the poor.
Seymour James, president of the New York State Bar Association, presented the resolution, warning of "the devastating impact proposed cuts will have on federal courts and the Legal Services Corporation."
James also expressed a concern shared by Amon and Preska—that the cuts would disproportionately affect civil cases and that shorter courthouse hours would lead to prolonged delays in civil trials. Same-day docketing on the electronic case filing system would fall by the wayside.
In the criminal realm, in addition to probation and pretrial services, criminal trials and procedure will be slowed. Amon expressed concern that shortfalls could impact the number of interpreters so often needed in large, multi-defendant criminal trials.
David Patton, Executive Director of Federal Defenders of New York, said he is waiting to hear the news from the Administrative Office, which supplies the funding for the 39 attorneys and 39 staff who work in the Eastern and Southern Districts.
"Even in the good case scenarios, we’re going to be extremely tight," Patton said. "And in the worst case scenarios, we’re going to be very short of what we need."
Northern, Western Districts
The Northern District, because of a hiring freeze and strict spending constraints over the past two years, is well-situated to weather the sequester through the summer and probably autumn. But if it goes any longer, court employees can expect furloughs and attorneys and litigants can anticipate canceled civil trials, according to Chief Judge Gary Sharpe (See Profile).
"We have to anticipate the impact of the sequestration on the budget because if the money is cut you can’t turn around and say to people the following day, ‘Sorry, but we’ve got to furlough you,’" Sharpe said. "You’ve got to be fair to your people and let them know what the impact is."
Sharpe said expenditures on hardware and other non-personnel budget lines have been frozen and vacancies have generally gone unfilled the past two years. He said the Northern District’s support staff is down about 10 positions, to roughly 60.
"Because we anticipated this in the Northern District, because we didn’t back fill a number of spots where people retired or moved on in the last two years, we anticipate that when the sequester hits, if it hits, we will continue to function at least through the summer and fall because we have been able to shift money from other accounts into the personnel account to take care of people," Sharpe said. "The courts can’t operate without people."
But Sharpe said there will be no choice but to impose furloughs and cancel civil trials if the stalemate stretches toward winter. Sharpe said filings also could be impacted if the clerk’s office loses its capacity to promptly docket electronically filed papers because of a staff shortage.
Michael Roemer, clerk in the Western District, said he does not expect any fallout at least until April. But he said that after operating with a frozen budget since 2010, further cuts could affect court operations.
"Right now it is going to be close for the district court as far as whether or not we will have to furlough," Roemer said. "I am cautiously optimistic that we might be able to transfer certain monies into personnel from our non-salary accounts so we can keep everybody in place."
However, Roemer said it is likely other agencies in the Western District, such as the U.S. Marshal’s Service, the federal public defender’s office and the U.S. attorney’s office, will have to furlough employees.
"In a couple of weeks, we are going to get all these agencies together and meet and try to figure out where everybody is and come up with a district-wide plan," Roemer said. "Obviously, if the marshals don’t have enough people to bring in prisoners we can’t have criminal court that day so we will have to come up with a plan to deal with furloughs and, at the same time, keep the courts operating. We need to come up with a plan that will lessen the pain for everybody and still enable us to do what we are supposed to do."
Roemer said the executive agency employees may be facing up to 20 furlough days. But he is hoping the court can avoid furloughs.
"We are such a small percentage of the overall federal budget," Roemer said. "Our budget cutting has a pretty minimal effect overall. The judiciary is willing to do its share, whatever has to be done, but we are starting to get very bare-bones. We can’t take too much of this."
@|Mark Hamblett can be contacted at email@example.com. John Caher contributed to this report.