In a rare public appeal directed at the White House, the Judicial Conference is asking President Barack Obama to be a forceful voice in favor of increased funding for the judicial branch in impending budget battles.
"The judiciary will not have a seat at the table during these budget discussions," wrote Judge John Bates, secretary of the conference, in a letter to the White House dated September 10 and made public on September 12. "It is essential that someone speak for the judiciary, and I respectfully ask that the administration help make the case for an increase in funding above the FY 2013 post-sequestration level for the judiciary."
Experts on the judiciary could not recall the last time that the conference, the policy-making arm of the judicial branch, made such a direct and open plea to a president. Conference officials regularly testify before Congress and have made their concern about budget cuts well known to legislators, but their contacts with the executive branch are seldom public.
"I can think off-hand of no public, written request from the federal judiciary to the president for assistance in arguing the judicial branch's case for increased appropriations" in the modern era, said Russell Wheeler, visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. Wheeler noted that, by statute (31 U.S.C. 1105,) the president is required to submit the judiciary's budget "without change" to Congress. The judiciary's budget request for fiscal year 2014 totals $7.15 billion, up slightly from the post-sequestration 2013 budget.
"The Judicial Conference has rarely, if ever, appealed so directly to the White House," University of Richmond School of Law professor Carl Tobias agreed. Tobias did not think the letter reflected any discontent with the administration's level of support for the judiciary, but rather that federal judges are "fed up with the shoddy treatment that Congress accords them."
Bates, also the new director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, told Obama in the letter that "I hope that you and the Congress will recognize the uncontrollable nature of our workload and provide the resources necessary for the judiciary to perform its essential constitutional functions."
He added that court clerks' offices as well as probation and pretrial services offices have been downsized by 1,000 people in response to sequestration, which cut the 2013 judiciary budget by nearly $350 million. Overall, since July 2011, the judiciary has lost nearly 2,500 employees and incurred 4,500 furlough days, according to Bates.
The biggest impact, said Bates, has been felt in the funding for defender services, with downsizing of federal defender offices and delayed payments to private attorneys compensated under the Criminal Justice Act.
"Over the years, with the support of Congress and the White House, the judiciary has been able to forge and maintain one of the most respected justice systems in the world," Bates wrote. "We are greatly concerned, however, that our constitutional duties, public safety, and the quality of our nation's justice system will be profoundly compromised" without sufficient funding in 2014.
The letter to Obama echoes a similar plea made in August by the chief judges of 87 trial court districts to congressional leaders. That, too, was a rarity, coming as it did from the self-described "boots on the ground" judges who oversee federal trial courts across the nation.
"The letter from the Judicial Conference to the President about court funding was unusual, as was the letter from 87 chief district judges to Congress," said David Sellers, spokesman for the administrative office. "They are a reflection of the severity of the judiciary's funding concerns. The letters also are an acknowledgement that the courts are doing all they can to cut costs, but ultimately must depend on the other two branches to reach a funding agreement."
Joining the drumbeat in favor of more judicial funding, U.S. Senator Christopher Coons (D-Del.) on Friday made a speech on the Senate floor warning about the damage from judicial budget cuts. "Our federal courts translate laws into justice, and effective courts require fair judges, well-trained lawyers and efficient clerks," Coons said. "The fewer judges and clerks we have and the reduced resources in time-saving technology, the fewer cases can be handled at a time, and the longer cases will take to process. 'Justice too long delayed is justice denied.' "
The letter was issued just days before the Judicial Conference's fall meeting on Tuesday. The conference meets in private and does not make its agenda public, but the budget situation is likely to be a prime topic of discussion.
Contact Tony Mauro at firstname.lastname@example.org.