In an unusual show of agreement and public lobbying, the chief judges of nearly every federal district court have joined to warn Congress of the damage budget cuts have done to judicial operations.

The 87 chief judges, who described themselves as "the boots on the ground in our nation's federal trial courts," signed a four-page letter describing how low funding has weakened courthouse security, reduced public safety because of probation and parole cuts, and caused dire problems for federal public defender offices.

First it was flat funding for years, and then $350 million in budget cuts this year called sequestration. Now there is “an unprecedented financial crisis” that is harming the constitutional mission of the courts, according to the letter drafted by Chief Judge Gerald Rosen of the Eastern District of Michigan and Chief Judge Loretta Preska of the Southern District of New York.

Congress returns from summer break in September with only a handful of legislative days to resolve a budget impasse or risk a government shutdown on October 1. The chief judges urged the leadership of the Senate and House, as well as the House and Senate Judiciary and appropriations committees, to at least restore the sequestration cuts.

“We do not have projects or programs to cut; we only have people,” the letter says. “Our workload does not diminish because of budget shortfalls. Deep funding cuts simply mean that the Judiciary cannot adequately perform its responsibilities.”

The letter warns that the lack of money is causing delays that undermine the public’s confidence in the judicial system. “When cases lag, the Judiciary is seen as inefficient, or worse, unsympathetic to litigants ranging from pro se litigants (who represent themselves) to individuals and companies seeking bankruptcy relief or the resolution of civil disputes to the government and defendants in criminal cases,” the letter says.

Staff cutbacks recently led the federal defender office in New York to ask for a delay in the trial of alleged terrorist Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law, the letter points out. The District of New Mexico, the Western District of Texas and the Western District of New York have stopped scheduling criminal matters on alternating Fridays because of federal defender office staffing shortages.

Beyond the letter's content, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts says that a letter like this hasn’t been drafted and so widely circulated (there are 94 districts) in decades, if ever—which underscores the urgency felt within the judiciary.

Apparently, Congress agrees. The House Appropriations Committee approved a fiscal year 2014 appropriations bill that includes $6.5 billion for the courts, roughly the same level it was in 2013, before sequestration cuts hit. The fiscal year begins on October 1. And a Senate appropriations subcommittee approved $6.7 billion for the courts, an increase of $148 million or 2.2 percent above the fiscal year 2013 level. “It restores severe cuts to Federal Defender offices and ensures that they are adequately staffed,” a bill summary says.

Still, federal courts officials have said the sharp disagreement between other budget priorities for the House, Senate and White House, could lead to yet another partisan battle in Congress that ends with a continuing resolution that either keeps the sequestration cuts or otherwise keeps the federal courts budget flat.


Todd Ruger is a reporter for The National Law Journal, a Legal affiliate based in New York.