Almost no aspect of the federal courts in New Jersey have gone untouched by the ongoing budget sequester.
Public defenders have faced 16 days of furloughs. Funding for Criminal Justice Act attorneys has been slashed. There is no money for new law clerks and court staff pay is frozen. The Probation Department has shrunk while caseloads have gone up. The backlog is starting to increase.
Officials have been belt-tightening and doing their best to keep cases moving with shrinking resources, but they warn if the sequester continues they might not be able to perform basic functions.
“Without additional resources, you can’t move cases,” said Chief Judge Jerome Simandle. “We have managed to keep the courthouses open. If it all continues after Oct. 1, if there is a continuing resolution, then our district is going to be in bad shape.”
“We are trying to be good citizens. We are trying to use our resources wisely,” added Simandle, who has written to the state’s congressional delegation urging an end to the sequester. “It’s hurting both the people who come to court and those who are employed here.”
The challenges facing court officials have not been lost on the lawyers who come into contact with the federal courts.
Last week, leaders from the New Jersey, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, New York and Florida bar associations wrote to members of Congress to make the case for restored funding. New Jersey State Bar Association President Ralph J. Lamparello was among the signatories. Here is an excerpt of the letter:
“We write to you in our capacity as presidents of several state bar associations that are deeply concerned with the FY 2013 sequestration cuts that imperil the federal judiciary in its efforts to carry out its duties and responsibilities as set forth in the Constitution and by acts of Congress.
The fair, efficient and effective administration of justice is at the foundation of a free and democratic society and serves to instill in the public the trust and confidence that is essential to preserve and protect the Rule of Law. It is no secret that our federal courts have had to downsize and furlough staff and scale back programs that have served the judiciary and the public well. As the third branch of our constitutional government, the judiciary is not just another federal agency and must be adequately funded.
We are aware that cuts in staffing have resulted in slower processing of civil and bankruptcy cases in some courts, thus causing individuals, small businesses, and corporations not to have their disputes and matters heard in a timely manner. The continued funding cuts to federal defender services is most troubling in that it directly impacts a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel and a speedy trial.
We are also cognizant of the reports that significant cuts and reductions for court security, drug testing, substance use disorder, and mental health treatment programs, as well as parole and probation services, increase the risk to public safety. The failure to fund these programs and services places our judiciary and the public at risk and puts justice in jeopardy.
On behalf of the lawyers who practice in the federal courts and the clients who turn to our courts to seek justice and resolve disputes, we share the concerns of the judges and respectfully ask …that sufficient funding be provided for the operation of the federal courts. Our system of justice and our citizens deserve no less.”