Sequestration — "Oh, you’ve heard about that," laughs Chief U.S. District Judge Sidney A. Fitzwater of the Northern District of Texas in Dallas.
The Washington, D.C., buzzword for an automatic across-the-board haircut for all federal agencies’ budgets, which started kicking in March 1, has taken on specific meanings in Texas federal courthouses.
Two chief U.S. district judges and three U.S. district clerks of the court say sequestration has required them to put in place tentative plans to cut back on services, including possibly reduced hours and delays on attorney pay in the Northern District, shorter stays in treatment for drug offenders in the Western District, and a hiring freeze in both and in the Eastern District.
If sequestration remains in place, says Karen Mitchell, clerk of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District in Dallas, her courts even may have to delay payments to court-appointed criminal-defense lawyers starting in September. But she stresses she’s not certain about that happening and the attorneys ultimately would get paid for the hours. Mitchell also predicts a possible reduction in hours of operation.
"In my 18 years, I’ve never seen it this bad in terms of the prospects for the future. It’s not that everything is going to immediately come to a grinding halt. We are doing everything in our powers not to have sequestration have an impact on our customers. But certain projects are going to have to stop. We just don’t know how bad it is going to be," Mitchell says.
Chief judges and district clerks in the Northern, Eastern and Western districts all say they have managed, so far, to avoid layoffs. They have forgone replacement of employees who leave and halted spending on nonpersonnel budgetary items, such as furniture and computer equipment, so now they can move the unused funds from the money-saving steps to pay staff.
But the officials also all say that sequestration, coming in the wake of years of cutbacks, allows for no future hiring, even when employees leave.
David Maland, the clerk of the court for the U.S. District Court in Eastern District of Texas, says his staff of 76 has lost 12 people through attrition in the past four years, none of whom were replaced.
Chief U.S. District Judge Fred Biery in the Western District of Texas says, "We are very conservative. We have been very careful to not hire, so we have some flexibility, and we have tried not to staff up to 100 percent, and that has helped but hasn’t solved the sequestration problems."
Biery says Western District administrators shifted probation and pretrial services division money from federally funded drug-treatment programs for offenders to pay for personnel.
"If we had full funding, someone who needed treatment might be in for 90 days. Now he’ll only be in for 45 days," Biery says.
In the Western District, which covers some 92,000 square miles, Biery says, judges and court personnel have tried to save by cutting back on travel expenses and doing more video teleconferencing.
Western District Clerk William G. Putnicki says that lawyers, litigants, jurors and defendants can expect the justice system to be open for business. He says, "We will be here five days a week."
What about if the cuts continue after the end of the 2013 fiscal year in September? Putnicki says: "I can’t answer that."
More immediately, what about Washington lawmakers’ scheduled vote at the end of March, which could shut down the federal government if a deal on the federal debt-ceiling cannot be reached?
"We are going to light candles, burn incense, conduct prayers, or pick whatever else your cultural background suggests," Biery jokes.
The chief U.S. district judge and the clerk of the court for the U.S. District Courts in the Southern District of Texas did not respond to one call each seeking comment.