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November 2006

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


Judiciary Appeals for Resources as Congress Prepares Final Funding Bills

House and Senate appropriators have been urged to remember sufficient resources for the Judiciary, especially the hard-pressed southwest border courts, as they determine FY 2007 funding levels.

The FY 2007 Transportation, Treasury, Housing and Urban Development, the Judiciary, the District of Columbia, and Independent Agencies Appropriation bill was one of more than a dozen uncompleted appropriations bills when Congress recessed for the November elections. The Senate and House completed separate versions of the bill in which the Senate would fund the Judiciary at $6.098 billion, while the House would fund the Judiciary at a lower level of $6.063 billion. The Judiciary requested $6.26 billion for FY 2007.

Now, Congress has returned for a lame duck session with limited time to complete legislation.

The second continuing resolution expires December 8, 2006. Congress hopes to complete action on the remaining appropriations bills before then, although it is possible some bills will not be finished by year-end and will roll-over to January 2007 for the 110th Congress to address.

The Judiciary’s greatest concerns are resources for its southwest border courts, sufficient funding for the courts’ Salaries and Expenses account where a decline in fee collections is anticipated, and increased funding to avert a shortfall in the Defender Services account. Judicial Conference Budget Committee Chair, Judge Julia S. Gibbons and Administrative Office Director James C. Duff wrote on behalf of the Judicial Conference to convey those concerns to House and Senate members as they met to conference the appropriations bills.

In the last several years, arrests of illegal immigrants have soared as thousands of border patrol agents have been funded, and now the southwest border courts are struggling to keep up with their workload. The five southwest border district courts account for nearly one-third of all criminal cases nationwide. There also has been a dramatic increase in immigration-related appeals in the courts of appeals.

“Unfortunately, given the workload needs throughout the federal court system, the Judiciary is not able to provide significant relief to these courts within existing resource levels,” wrote Gibbons and Duff. “We are hopeful that when Congress considers immigration and border enforcement initiatives it will keep in mind the potential bottleneck that will be created if sufficient resources—including judgeships— are not provided to the courts.”

The Judiciary’s largest account, the Salaries and Expenses account, funds court services, including such non-discretionary items as salaries, rent, and benefits. Current projections indicate a 40 percent decline in fee collections, primarily due to fewer bankruptcy filings. The current Senate-recommended funding level would help mitigate the impact of the decline in fee collections.

“While this will not provide resources for workload increases over the past several years, it will enable some courts to hire staff to address critical law enforcement-related workload requirements they face, especially along the southwest border,” the Gibbons/Duff letter said.

For the Defender Services account, the Judicial Conference has asked for funding sufficient to meet current services, a level of $781 million. This is a level above both the House and Senate recommendations, but necessary if a shortfall in this account is to be avoided. The Judicial Conference has warned that a funding shortfall in this account will result in staff reductions in federal defender organizations and deferral of panel attorney payments into FY 2008, which may affect the timely disposition of cases and availability of counsel.

The Judiciary also urged retention of funding at the Senate level for new courthouse construction projects, included under the General Services Administration section of the appropriations bill, and $154 million for repair and alterations projects.

Judiciary Warns of Harm from Across-the-Board Cuts

The Judicial Conference remains concerned that Congress will adopt across-the-board cuts in the FY 2007 appropriations bills—cuts that have, in prior years, harmed the Judiciary. “The Judiciary’s work is labor intensive, and we must have the staff necessary to perform the courts’ constitutional duties,” Budget Committee Chair Judge Julia S. Gibbons and Administrative Office Director James C. Duff wrote appropriators on behalf of the Judicial Conference. “When we receive across-the-board reductions in funding, we have little recourse but to apply them primarily to court staffing.” In FY 2004 and FY 2005, the combination of across-the-board reductions and delayed appropriations resulted in the courts losing the services of 1,800 employees between October 2003 and March 2005. The FY 2006 cut was mitigated by compensation for General Services Administration rent overcharges. But current court staffing levels are still 1,538 below the number on-board in October 2003. “An across the board reduction in FY 2007,” they wrote, “could seriously erode Judiciary staffing further and severely jeopardize the judicial process.”