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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
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
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
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
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
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
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,”
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.