WASHINGTON – Congress gave final approval last week to a budget deal that offers some relief to the federal judiciary after last year’s budget cuts.
A bipartisan appropriations bill that passed both the House and the Senate will provide the federal courts an increase of $316 million in discretionary spending—or 5 percent above current funding—for the 2014 fiscal year, according to a summary of the 1,582-page bill from the Senate Appropriations Committee.
That will almost erase the $350 million in cuts to the judiciary in March as part of sequestration, which has caused almost a year of layoffs and furloughs in the federal courts and threatened the judiciary’s ability to pay court-appointed private counsel in criminal cases.
The appropriation sets funding for U.S. Supreme Court salaries and court operations such as courthouse security, the cost of court operations for other federal court operations including Federal Defender organizations.
Karen Redmond, a spokeswoman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, said in a written statement Tuesday the judiciary is “pleased” with the funding, which is essentially the level the courts sought in December.
The executive committee of the U.S. Judicial Conference will meet next month to determine how the appropriated funds will be used, Redmond said.
“We’re cautiously optimistic,” said Eastern District Clerk of Court Douglas Palmer.
In fiscal year 2012, the Eastern District’s expenses outpaced its $16 million allotment from the Judicial Conference by $2 million, Palmer said. Last year, the district’s deficit after a $14 million allotment was $1.7 million.
Palmer said the district has done “a lot” of trimming, including leaving 29 positions unfilled, eliminating almost all money for building maintenance and not replacing information technology equipment.
All the cuts have had a “real effect,” Palmer said. For one thing, they have been stressful for staff who were “forced to take on multiple tasks that used to be left to specialists.”
So far this fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, the Eastern District got an approximately $7 million allotment for the first six months. If it receives an equal amount for the following six months, the deficit is projected to be only about $150,000, said Palmer.
Southern District Chief Judge Loretta Preska, who has helped lead a public campaign to restore funds to the judiciary, said there was reason for optimism.
“I’m grateful to Congress for recognizing the vital importance of the judiciary in this way–we are finally beginning to restore the devastating budget cuts of years past,” Preska said. “While there is still much more work to do, I’m very encouraged by this budget.”
Michael Roemer, clerk to the district court for the Western District of New York, said the clerk’s office lost five employees out of the 50 administrative staffers, jury administrators, IT support personnel and other support staff in 2013.
If restorations occur in 2014, even significant ones, Roemer said it is likely to immediately result in the filling of positions left vacant last year.
“I will be very cautious before I start any new initiatives or start doing something we had to stop doing,” he said. “As far as restoring anything [cut last year], at this point I would be hesitant to restore anything, since we have no way of knowing what is going to be happening over the next few years.”
Nevertheless, Roemer said new funding would be good for morale.
“Will it restore everybody’s moral completely? I am not sure,” he said. “But I think everybody’s morale has been a little shaken. People go into government service for a lot of reasons, and one of them is job stability. This [budget upheaval] has kind of pulled the rug out from underneath that. It has been eye-opening for everybody.”
‘Redefining Good News’
David Patton, head of Federal Defenders of New York, which has been particularly hard hit by budget cuts, said the new budget is “certainly a lot better than where we would have been, so overall, it’s very good news, although we keep in redefining good news.”
Patton’s complement of attorneys and staff in the Southern and Eastern Districts dipped from just over 80 before the sequester to slightly over 70 following a year in which all staff were forced to take unpaid furloughs.
Without a budget, he said his agency would have been faced an 8 to 9 percent cut, but now “my guess is that we will move from that to somewhere in the ballpark of three-to-five percent,” he said.
“We’ll be able to make up some of the ground we lost but not all of it,” he added. “The other question is, even though we might have the money to hire people, should we? How confident are that we won’t have to go through this again come October.”
Patton also said he believes it likely that the $125 to $110 per hour reduction in the hourly rate paid to assigned counsel will be erased.
Lisa Peebles, the federal public defender for the Northern District, had to lay off two full-time and one half-time employee last year. All other workers had to take 16 unpaid furlough days.
“The fact that I had to let people go who I adored and thought did remarkable work and have to explain why it was them was probably the most difficult thing I have every had to do in my professional career,” she said. “If this [congressional budget bill] is really a sign of light at the end of the tunnel, it is something that we would really welcome.”
‘At Least Stop the Bleeding’
A spokesman for Sen. Chris Coons, D.-Del., chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Bankruptcy and the Courts, said the bill is good for the federal judiciary. The courts should now have enough funding to get through the 2014 fiscal year without additional furloughs or cuts to service, spokesman Ian Koski said in a written statement.
“It should mean no more cuts to clerks’ offices, no more cuts to federal defender services, and no more [Criminal Justice Act] panel payment deferrals,” Koski said. “This is probably the minimum amount of funding the courts could really survive on this year, but it should at least stop the bleeding.”
The bill, Koski said, reflects cost-containment efforts the courts have undertaken over the last few years. “The people that run our federal courts have become more efficient and done a remarkable job of doing more with less,” he said. “This bill is a victory for them.”
The bill comes on the heels of a bipartisan budget agreement in December to avoid another government shutdown and to prevent the government from defaulting on its debt.
The bill provides $6.5 billion in discretionary spending—out of an a total of $1 trillion—and an overall funding close to the $7 billion funding that the judiciary asked for in December.
“This funding level is based upon the latest estimates of the Judiciary’s needs and ensures that staffing and resources will be available for court offices, probation, and pretrial services offices,” according to a Senate summary of the bill. “It restores severe cuts to Federal Defender offices and ensures that they are adequately staffed.”
A $7 billion budget would allow the restoration of some staff positions and reverse cuts to drug treatment and mental health programs, according to a year-end report from Chief Justice John Roberts Jr.
Roberts, in that report, warned that continued budget cuts would result in courtroom layoffs, trial delays and a “deepening threat to public safety at courts around the country.”
The House Appropriations Committee summary of the bill said funding for the federal courts “is equal to the fiscal year 2013 enacted level and consistent with their latest estimate of needs.”
“This will provide funding for all federal court activities, the supervision of offenders and defendants living in our communities, the maintenance of court security, and the timely processing of federal cases,” the summary stated.
@|Todd Ruger is a reporter for The National Law Journal, an affiliate of the Law Journal. He can be contacted at email@example.com. Andrew Keshner, Mark Hamblett and Joel Stashenko of the New York Law Journal contributed to this story.