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Fiscal Year 2013: Budget Sequestration and the Judiciary

As sequestration under the Budget Control Act of 2011 loomed, the Judiciary began planning how best to cope with the effects of severe funding reductions. From the start, it was clear emergency measures would be necessary.

  • September 2012: Congress passed a six-month Continuing Resolution funding the federal government at fiscal year 2012 levels through March 27, 2013. The Judiciary worked with court unit executives to determine the local impact of sequestration. Conference committees, AO staff, and court advisory groups began developing plans to lessen the impact of sequestration on the courts.
  • October 2012: The Judicial Conference Executive Committee began development of a nationally coordinated approach to sequestration, with flexibility for local court options. A special subcommittee was formed to develop cost-reduction strategies and options for consideration by the Executive Committee.
  • December 2012:  The Executive Committee gave final approval to a set of emergency measures to be implemented in January 2013, if Judiciary funding became subject to sequestration under the Budget Control Act of 2011. These measures covered the Judiciary’s four main appropriations accounts and reflected a coordinated strategy, to the extent possible, to ensure reasonable consistency and equity among members of the Judiciary family, while accommodating local flexibility. Many of the measures were temporary, one-time reductions that could not be repeated if future funding levels continued to decline.

    While acknowledging the negative impact of these emergency measures on many courts and their operations, the Executive Committee saw the measures as necessary to control expenditures during sequestration. It was anticipated that thousands of Judiciary staff might face furloughs or layoffs, although no actions of that kind or court closures were nationally mandated.
  • January 2013:  Congress passed legislation to avert the so-called “fiscal cliff,” delaying the effective date for sequestration until March 1, 2013. Emergency measures approved by the Executive Committee to address sequestration were put on hold.
  • February 2013: When Congress and the Administration were unable to come to an agreement to prevent sequestration, the Executive Committee moved to implement the series of emergency measures. Nevertheless, significant shortfalls remained.

    Funds were reprogrammed from other areas to reduce the expected number of furlough days in FY 2013. For example, $19 million was transferred from information technology (IT) into salaries to avoid furloughing staff. However, these reprogrammings created gaps in the Judiciary’s IT program that will need to be addressed in FY 2014 and FY 2015.

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    senate hearing

    In March 2013, Judge Julia S. Gibbons, chair of the Judicial Conference Budget Committee, testified before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government, along with Judge Thomas F. Hogan, Director of the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, on the Judiciary’s fiscal year 2014 funding needs. The Judiciary sought a 2.6 percent overall increase above the assumed fiscal year 2013 appropriations levels, the Judiciary's lowest requested increase on record.

  • March 2013: The President signed the “Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act of 2013,” which provided full-year fiscal year 2013 funding for the Judiciary, but left in place the government-wide sequestration cuts required under the Budget Control Act of 2011. The legislation funded Judiciary accounts at a “hard freeze”—approximately the fiscal year 2012 level—but sequestration cuts reduced Judiciary funding overall by nearly $350 million below the fiscal year 2012 discretionary funding level.

    At House 2014 budget hearings in March, Judge Julia Gibbons, chair of the Judicial Conference Budget Committee and Judge Thomas Hogan, then Director of the AO, detailed the devastating impact of sequestration on federal court operations nationwide.

  • April 2013: Sequestration cut $52 million in FY 2013 funding from Defender Services, causing many federal defender offices to furlough staff. The Executive Committee of the Judicial Conference examined all aspects of the Defender account and approved a final spending plan that allocated available funds to limit the number of days any defender organization staff must be furloughed, while also deferring payments to private panel attorneys for the last 15 business days of the fiscal year.
  • May 2013: In May, the Judicial Conference requested a $72.9 million emergency supplemental to “address critical needs resulting from sequestration cuts.” A letter outlining the request (pdf) was sent to the Office of Management and Budget requesting $41.4 million for the Defender Services account and $31.5 million for the courts’ Salaries and Expenses account, in part to restore funds cuts from law enforcement programs, including mental health and drug testing. Congress did not act on this supplemental funding request.
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    In the wake of sequestration, the Executive Committee of the Judicial Conference developed a set of emergency measures for the courts, ensuring reasonable consistency and equity while accommodating local flexibility. The Executive Committee in March 2013, (left to right, seated,) Chief Judge William Jay Riley (8th Cir.), Chief Judge Mary Beck Briscoe (10th Cir.), Chief Judge Sarah S. Vance (E.D. La.), Chief Judge Joel F. Dubina (11th Cir.), AO Director Judge Thomas F. Hogan. (Standing left to right) Judge Robert S. Lasnik (W.D. Wash.), Judge Rodney W. Sippel (E.D. Mo.), Chief Judge William B. Traxler, Jr. (4th Cir) (chair).

  • July 2013: At a July 2013 Senate hearing on sequestration and the courts, Judge Gibbons warned that “flat funding at sequestration levels . . . would irreparably damage the system that is a hallmark of our liberty around the world,” threatening public safety, constitutional rights, and economic well-being.
  • August 2013: In mid-August, 87 chief U.S. district judges wrote  to Congressional leaders (pdf) stating that reduced funding and sequestration have "forced us to slash our operations to the bone, and we believe that our constitutional duties, public safety, and the quality of the justice system will be profoundly compromised by any further cuts."

    Later that month, in an emergency move to preserve federal defender staffing in FY 2014, the Executive Committee of the Judicial Conference reduced hourly rates for court-appointed panel attorneys by $15 an hour, effective on September 1, 2013. In addition, payments to panel attorneys for up to four weeks of work done in FY 2014 would be deferred to FY 2015. The emergency measure was described by the Executive Committee as temporary and undesirable, but “necessary to avoid permanent damage to the federal defender program.”
  • September 2013: In a September 10 letter, the Judiciary appealed to President Obama for his support in acquiring the funding necessary in fiscal year 2014 to perform its essential constitutional functions. Without it, the letter stated, the federal courts faced additional reductions in staff and services that would severely affect individuals and businesses seeking to resolve disputes.