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Delays in case processing, less supervision of criminal offenders, long lines due to a shortage of security personnel at courthouses and court employee layoffs are just a few of the things the federal court system is bracing for as a result of the ongoing automatic federal budget cuts known as the sequester.

Courts brace for sequester fallout

The Peace Monument, right, stands in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Federal court officials are bracing for sequester-related cuts they fear will be severe. (BLOOMBERG PHOTO: PETE MAROVICH)

Officials say 2014, 2015 will be worse

Delays in case processing, less supervision of criminal offenders, long lines due to a shortage of security personnel at courthouses and court employee layoffs are just a few of the things the federal court system is bracing for as a result of the ongoing automatic federal budget cuts known as the budget sequester.

From administrative offices at trial-level courts to the courtroom of the U.S. Supreme Court, the effect of the deep budget cuts will be felt throughout the federal court system until Congress passes a measure to fully fund the federal government, officials said.

“These actions are unsustainable, difficult and painful to implement,” 6th U.S. Circuit Judge Julia Gibbons told the Judicial Conference of the United States, the policymaking body for the federal court system, at its biannual meeting in Washington, D.C., last week. “The judiciary cannot continue to operate at sequestration funding levels without seriously compromising the constitutional mission of the federal courts.”

The budget sequester, which began March 1 after Congress and White House officials failed to reach a deficit reduction deal under the Budget Control Act, will force $85 billion worth of cuts in 2013 absent congressional action. About $350 million of those cuts will affect the federal judicial system.

The looming funding crisis was the main focus of members of the House Appropriations Committee when Supreme Court Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and Stephen G. Breyer testified on judicial oversight last week.

“Yes, trials would be delayed. Yes, bankruptcies would be delayed,” Kennedy told members of the committee. “And if you slow that down, you slow down civil dispositions of contracts waiting to be enforced [and decisions on] whether a plant’s going to be built or so forth, whether damages are going to be paid to someone who was the victim of a breach of contract, if you’re going to potentially cause dismissal [of] criminal prosecutions. You are threatening the efficiency of the legal structure.”

Deep cuts looming

While all three branches of the federal government will be affected by the ongoing automatic spending cuts if no solution is found soon, judiciary officials said the implications for the court system will be particularly palpable because it is largely people-driven. If the sequester extends past the middle of the year, the judiciary’s budget offers little wiggle room, so furloughs and layoffs will be inevitable, officials said.

As a result, court operations will be affected in five major areas, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts:

• Public safety

Fewer probation officers and other critical personnel will mean less supervision of criminal offenders released into the community, as well as reduced access to drug testing and mental health treatment.

• Delays in case processing

Sharp staff reductions for clerks’ offices will mean court officials will have to place a priority on criminal cases. As a result, expect significant delays in the processing of civil and bankruptcy cases, which could have an adverse effect on the overall economic recovery.

• Court security

Funding for court security systems will be cut by 30 percent, meaning court security officers will work fewer hours, leaving court security systems more vulnerable.

• Federal defenders

Federal public defenders will face layoffs and furloughs, which could result in delays in defense counsel appointment. Attorneys appointed pursuant to the Criminal Justice Act could see their payments delayed.

• Information technology

The IT programs that courts depend on for daily case processing will see deep cuts.

“Reductions of this magnitude strike at the heart of our entire system of justice and spread throughout the country,” said Gibbons, chairwoman of the conference’s budget committee. “The longer the sequestration stays in place, the more severe will be its impact on the courts and those who use them.”

‘This is serious business’

Kennedy and Breyer, testifying before Congress, stressed that the judiciary system has already focused on cutting costs over the past several years, given the already tightening budgetary issues facing the government. Asking for more cuts will affect all aspects of court operations.

“We have some policemen who are there for security purposes who don’t just protect us, but they protect the public,” Breyer told lawmakers. “And then we have to keep the courtroom reasonably clean. And if you didn’t keep it clean, it’s not just us again who would suffer. Even the litigants.”

Kennedy said he asked his clerks to find out how many Supreme Court opinions and transcripts were downloaded last year.

“And the answer — I was astounded myself — is just under 70 million downloads,” Kennedy said. “That’s the education function that we’re performing. And we have to have technical staff that can perform this function.”

Because the funding structure of the federal judiciary is decentralized, the effect of the sequester will vary from court to court.

However, Kennedy said, history shows that major budget crises have had more serious effects on the criminal system.

“The first things that are cut when there’s an across-the-board cut in the expenditure for the courts are pretrial sentence officers and probation officers, and this is very dangerous,” Kennedy said. “And then public defenders are also on the list. … This is serious business.”

Minnesota: ‘We will fulfill our constitutional duties’

In Minnesota, Chief Judge Michael Davis said that the actual amount of the cuts the court will have to absorb is still a “moving number.” A continuing resolution to fund the government expires March 27 and, assuming Congress passes another resolution to fund the government through the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, the numbers should then stabilize, Davis said. (At press time, the Senate had passed a resolution and the House was expected to do so shortly.)

Then each judicial district will find out its allotment, Davis said, and then he will have to decide how to deal with it.

But do not worry, Davis continued. “The District of Minnesota will function fully for the litigants who have cases before the court. We have done an analysis of our budget, and we will fulfill our constitutional duties,” he said.

Chief Federal Public Defender Katherian Roe said the public defender situation is grave all across the country. It’s an ironic way to observe the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, she said, because budget cuts are seriously undermining the promise of Gideon.

Roe is part of the Defenders Services Advisory Group, made up of eight defenders who will recommend policy choices to the Office of Defender Services. “We’re not sure what we’re going to do. We might have a clawback [of funds] or we might have local solutions,” she said.

A significant number of public defender offices will have to furlough their entire staff for 20 to 35 days, Roe said. Those furloughs will have to happen soon, before the end of the fiscal year. One office is looking at a 60-day furlough, she said.

Roe believes she will avoid furloughs. She’s moved money around to cover personnel costs and has already cut to the bone, she said. But the other districts in the country can’t just be shuttered, she said. “We may have to take from Minnesota and give to neighboring states,” she said.

Roe pointed out that there is only one defender office in the state, in Minneapolis, and that money for travel is jeopardized. The conflict lawyers will share the pain and will have to work for free for a while if they want to continue to be appointed, she said.

“All payments to conflicts lawyers will be deferred, and the money will run out in September,” said Roe. They have been so notified, she added.

Roe does think the defenders are being heard. She noted that in an unusual move, when the Judicial Conference met earlier this month, they added the public defender crisis to the agenda. That’s likely because it’s a real crisis, she said. “There’s nothing political about this.”

Eighth Judicial District Chief Judge William Riley said that while he cannot speak for the Judicial Conference, public defense is a very important topic. But, he said, the effect of the defender’s office varies among districts, depending on how well they are prepared for the crisis.

“In the 8th Circuit, we have some districts with no furloughs and others with a lot of furloughs,” he said. Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Arkansas have no furloughs. Other districts will furlough most of their people from between 10 and 30 days, and he said the U.S. attorney’s office may do the same. But the worst is yet to come, Riley added.

“The Judicial Conference is looking forward. The 2014-2015 budgets are going to be much more difficult for the courts.”

Questions or comments can be directed to the writers at kimberly.atkins@lawyersusaonline.com or barbara.jones@minnlawyer.com.

About Kimberly Atkins and Barbara Jones

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