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April 2006

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


Judiciary Calls for Funding to Maintain Course

The federal courts have asked Congress to provide a fiscal year 2007 appropriation sufficient to build on the gains achieved in FY 2006, or risk re-creating the funding problems of past years.

“The federal Judiciary is approaching a crossroads in fiscal year 2007,” Judge Julia Gibbons (6th Cir.), chair of the Judicial Conference Budget Committee, said in a House appropriations hearing in early April 2006. “With the gains you helped us achieve in FY 2006, we are on the brink of setting a new course that will restore the financial health of the federal court system. But it will take the resources we seek in our FY 2007 budget request to accomplish that goal and to avoid a repeat of the staffing losses that occurred in FY 2004 and FY 2005.”

Gibbons appeared before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Treasury, Housing and Urban Development, the Judiciary, District of Columbia and Independent Agencies, with Director of the Administrative Office Leonidas Ralph Mecham. Gibbons noted that this was Director Mecham’s final appearance at an appropriations hearing. The longest serving director of the AO, Mecham has announced his retirement. Both Subcommittee Chair Joe Knollenberg (R-MI) and Ranking Minority Member John W. Olver (D-MA) congratulated Mecham on his many years of service to the federal Judiciary.

The Judiciary is requesting $6.26 billion for FY 2007, a 9.4 percent overall increase above FY 2006 available appropriations, and an 8.3 percent increase for the courts’ Salaries and Expenses account. Funding requirements essentially reflect basic operating costs, predominantly for personnel and space requirements. Of the $540 million increase requested for FY 2007, a total of $462 million, or 86 percent of the requested increase, represents must-pay items such as pay and benefit increases, space rental increases, panel attorney payments, and general inflationary increases for Judiciary programs.

“We believe this level of funding represents the minimum amount required to meet our constitutional and statutory responsibilities,” said Gibbons.

In a response to a question from the subcommittee about judges’ pay, Gibbons endorsed a substantial pay increase for judges and court staff. Mecham strongly supported her response and expressed concern about Executive Branch pay and incentives, which can be as high as $212,000 per year. In contrast, judges receive far less and court staff may only receive a maximum of $162,000 annually.

Gibbons cited several factors that have added to the courts’ workload in the last year. Actions taken by the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice have increased immigration cases in the southwest border courts by 68 percent since 2001 and related appeals 19 percent in the same period. Also, issues raised in the Supreme Court decisions in U.S. v. Booker and U.S. v. Fanfan added over 14,500 cases to court dockets.

Gibbons cited the need to reduce the Judiciary’s rent burden and both Knollenberg and Olver, in follow-up questions, expressed concerns about the Judiciary’s growing rent bill. Rent payments to the General Services Administration (GSA), are expected to consume 20 percent of the courts’ operating budget in FY 2006 and will soon top $1 billion per year.

“Especially during these times of limited resources,” Mecham told the subcommittee, “I fear that our ability to carry out the basic functions of the judicial branch are at stake if rent relief is not obtained.”

Knollenberg noted that GSA is also under the jurisdiction of the subcommittee. GSA rental receipts are an offsetting collection, which is credited against the discretionary spending in the subcommittee’s appropriations bill. Therefore changing the workings of GSA’s Federal Buildings Fund could have a significant budgetary impact on the subcommittee and he is cautious about supporting legislation that would grant rent relief to the Judiciary.

Meanwhile, according to Gibbons and Mecham, the Judiciary is actively working to restore the financial health of the federal court system. Cost-containment efforts and productivity improvements in clerks’ and probation and pretrial services offices lowered the Judiciary’s budget requirements by $80 million.

“During these times of fiscal constraint and limited discretionary spending,” Mecham said, “the Administrative Office takes the lead in assisting the courts in developing new, innovative, and cost-effective ways to carry out the business of the Judiciary.”

Mecham noted that among the initiatives that have already yielded savings are the moratoria on space projects, reductions to probation and pretrial services work requirements, reductions and elimination of redundant Federal Protective Service contract guard services, and productivity adjustments to court staffing formulas.

In addition, in the absence of rent relief, the Judiciary has assumed the burden of minimizing its rent payments to GSA by scrutinizing rent bills and identifying overcharges.

Finally, in his testimony, Mecham asked the subcommittee for the resources to sustain the AO’s current staffing level, which has not been increased in over 10 years despite many new work demands, posed in part by a 21 percent increase in court staffing. He noted the impact on Judiciary resources, including AO and court staff, of the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005; the AO’s leadership role for the Judiciary in disaster response, which was tested during the hurricanes of 2005; and the continued implementation by the AO of internal cost-control measures, including maintenance of a nearly 10 percent vacancy rate, limited travel and training, and an examination of all operations, projects, and functions to identify cost-reduction opportunities.

“While such restrictions may be acceptable for a short period,” Mecham said, “over the longer term, they begin to adversely affect the AO’s ability to support the courts.” He pointed out that the AO’s share of the Judiciary’s budget has dropped steeply from 2.8 percent in 1985 when he became Director to 1.2 percent in 2006.

The Federal Judicial Center also submitted its FY 2007 budget request to the subcommittee, although its Director, Judge Barbara J. Rothstein, did not testify at the hearing.

“The Center’s mission,” Rothstein said in her testimony, “is to provide objective, well-grounded empirical research and balanced, effective educational programs for the courts.”

An indicator of the reliance of judges’ and court staff on the Center is the number of court employees—nearly 11,500 in 2005—who chose to participate in Center programs and use its services. Another 4,000 participated in Center video, audio, and web conferences. Thousands more watched Center television programs, downloaded materials from the Center’s intranet site, and used Center publications.

However, the Center’s service to the courts has been adversely affected by budget shortfalls in all but one of the last 10 years.

“The continued shortfall in our appropriation will erode our ability to provide the quality education and research that the courts need,” Rothstein said in her statement. “The tools we have used the last several years—a hiring freeze, salary limits, and other reductions in spending—cannot go on indefinitely without degrading the quality and quantity of work we can perform.”

Rothstein noted that the Center’s FY 2007 request would enable them to fill 12 of the most necessary vacancies—six devoted to education and distance learning efforts, three to an increasing number of research projects; and three to automation and technology.

“With these resources we can continue to help the courts prepare for and meet the many substantive, procedural, and operational challenges they face,” Rothstein said.

The complete testimony of Gibbons and Mecham, along with testimony submitted by the Federal Judicial Center, the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit and the U.S. Court of International Trade, can be found on the Judiciary’s website at http://www.uscourts.gov/Press_Releases/budget.html.