Jessica M. Karmasek Aug. 16, 2013, 5:04pm

WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) -- The chief judges of more than 80 federal district courts say they are concerned about the impacts "flat funding" and sequestration are having on the judiciary.

In a nine-page 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, the 87 chief judges urged Senate and House leaders to at least restore sequestration cuts.

Sequestration refers to a set of automatic federal spending cuts put into law by the Budget Control Act, signed by President Barack Obama in August 2011. The legislation raised the debt ceiling and was intended to put pressure on Congress to come up with a longer term plan for deficit reduction.

The $1.2 trillion in budget cuts, which were triggered March 1, will be spread over nine years and are equally divided between domestic and defense-related spending. The cuts are set to end in 2021.

For the remaining fiscal year 2013, the spending reductions are about $85 billion alone.

In May, the U.S. Judicial Conference asked the White House for $73 million in emergency funding to address what it calls "critical needs" resulting from the cuts.

The emergency funding would replace only a small portion of the $350 million in funding reductions imposed upon the federal courts by sequestration.

The chief judges, in their letter addressed to Vice President Joe Biden, who also serves as U.S. Senate President, said flat funding and sequestration have slashed the courts' operations "to the bone."

"We believe that our constitutional duties, public safety, and the quality of the justice system will be profoundly compromised by any further cuts," they wrote Tuesday.

The judges said their current staffing level is the lowest it has been since 1999, despite significant workload growth during the same period.

In addition, the courts already have incurred 4,500 furlough days as of June 2013, and an additional 4,100 furlough days are projected by the end of the fiscal year, they noted.

"These staffing losses are resulting in slower processing of civil and bankruptcy cases, which impacts individuals and businesses seeking to resolve disputes in the federal courts," the chief judges wrote.

The judges also argue that the cuts have put the public safety at risk, that security at courthouses have suffered and funding for defender services has taken a hit.

"Reductions in court budgets reduce the overall volume of work that the Judiciary is able to perform and communicate timely to the public in a variety of ways, again undermining our core constitutional responsibilities," they wrote.

That undermines the public confidence in the system, as litigants are forced to wait longer for relief, the judges argue.

"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 resolution of civil disputes to the government and defendants in criminal cases," they wrote.

The Senate Appropriations Committee recently approved an appropriations bill that will provide the judiciary with a $496 million increase in funding for fiscal year 2014.

The House Appropriations Committee approved a bill that will provide a $363 million increase in funding for fiscal year 2014.

"We commend those in Congress who understand our needs as well as our dedication to being good stewards of taxpayer funds," the chief judges wrote. "Still, we remain deeply concerned about the effects on our mission in the event a Continuing Resolution is enacted for the full year.

"A second year under sequestration will have a devastating, and long lasting, impact on the administration of justice in this country."

The judges argue that the courts have cut "as much as possible," but another round of cuts would be "devastating."

"We do not have projects or programs to cut; we only have people," they wrote.

Click here to read the judges' letter.

The fiscal year begins Oct. 1. That's also the deadline for Congress to resolve a budget impasse or risk a government shutdown.

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