Judiciary seeks $73 million in emergency funds

By Jessica M. Karmasek | May 20, 2013

WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) -- The U.S. Judicial Conference asked the White House last week for $73 million in emergency funding to address what it calls "critical needs" resulting from sequestration cuts.

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

The sequester is a set of automatic 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 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.

"The Judiciary is confronting an unprecedented fiscal crisis that could seriously compromise the Constitutional mission of the United States courts," Julia S. Gibbons, chair of the U.S. Judicial Conference Committee on the Budget, wrote in a May 14 letter to White House Office of Management and Budget Director Sylvia Mathews Burwell.

Gibbons, who serves as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, said the courts need an emergency appropriation of $72.9 million -- $31.5 million for the Courts Salaries and Expenses account and $41.4 million for the Defender Services account.

The money would save the jobs of hundreds of court employees and avoid more than 10,000 planned furlough days for more than 3,000 court employees.

The funds also would cover millions in projected representation costs for high-threat trials, including cases in New York and Boston, according to the letter.

"The impacts of sequestration are compounded by the fact that 100 percent of the cuts must be absorbed with only six months remaining in the fiscal year," Gibbons wrote, along with Thomas F. Hogan, secretary of the Judicial Conference.

"Unlike some Executive Branch entities, the Judiciary has little flexibility to move funds between appropriation accounts to lessen the effects of sequestration. There are no lower-priority programs to reduce in order to transfer funds to other Judiciary accounts."

Read the Judicial Conference's full letter here.

The Judicial Conference, formerly known as the Conference of Senior Circuit Judges, was created by Congress in 1922 with the principal objective of framing policy guidelines for administration of judicial courts in the United States.

The conference is headed by the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and consists of the chief judge of each court of appeals, a district court judge from each regional judicial circuit and the chief judge of the U.S. Court of International Trade.

DRI -- The Voice of the Defense Bar, a group of more than 20,000 defense lawyers, came out in support of the Judicial Conference's request last week.

On Friday, DRI's Center for Law and Public Policy urged Congressional leaders to ease the crisis in the federal courts by supporting the request.

DRI President Mary Massaron Ross wrote in the letter that "budget cuts have forced diminished court staffing, court closures, compromised security and lengthy trial delays."

"This, of course, means that justice is delayed. Since criminal trials must take priority, already lengthy delays in civil trials become even longer," Ross wrote.

"Perhaps thousands of businesses will not survive the abeyance of lengthy uncertainty over the outcome of litigation. We talk of the effect on justice, we talk of the effect on businesses but, at bottom, it is people's lives that are adversely changed."

In recent months, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts and fellow Justices Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer have spoken out regarding the negative impact of the cuts on the administration of justice.

In his 2012 year-end report, Roberts wrote that "virtually all of the Judiciary's core functions are constitutionally and statutorily mandated. Unlike executive branch agencies, the courts do not have discretionary programs they can eliminate or projects they can postpone. The courts must resolve all criminal and civil cases that fall within their jurisdiction, often under tight time constraints.

"A significant and prolonged shortfall in judicial funding would inevitably result in the delay or denial of justice for the people the courts serve."

Marc Williams, chairman of DRI's Center for Law and Public Policy, said it's more than a budgetary issue at this point.

"The courts are charged with very certain responsibilities under the Constitution. At some point, you have to say that those responsibilities are being abrogated for lack of funding," he said in a statement.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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