Justice group supports Judiciary's request for $73M in emergency funds

By Jessica M. Karmasek | May 29, 2013

WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) -- Justice at Stake, in a letter to congressional leaders this week, voiced its support for a recent request by the federal courts for an emergency infusion of $73 million, including $41 million for federal public defenders.

JAS Executive Director Bert Brandenburg sent a two-page letter to U.S. Sens. Patrick Leahy and Chuck Grassley and U.S. Reps. Lamar Smith and John Conyers Jr. Tuesday.

Leahy and Grassley serve on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Leahy is the chairman, Grassley the ranking member. Smith and Conyers serve on the House committee. Smith is the chairman, Conyers the ranking member.

"This supplemental is essential to mitigate the harms of sequestration and to ensure that the judiciary is able to provide access to justice for the people of this nation," Brandenburg wrote.

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.

Earlier this month, 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 courts by sequestration.

"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 the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Gibbons 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.

"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."

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

Now, JAS is lending its support.

Brandenburg, in his letter to Leahy, Grassley, Smith and Conyers, argues that the budget cuts are influencing prosecution decisions, causing delays in trials and forcing the furloughs of public defenders.

"More fundamentally, these cuts threaten to erode several core constitutional values, including the right to a jury trial and due process," he wrote.

JAS describes itself as a nonpartisan, nonprofit campaign working to keep America's courts fair and impartial.

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

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