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April 2007

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

 

Cost–Conscious Federal Courts Trim Needs, Ask for FY 2008 Funding


In March hearings on Capitol Hill, representatives of the federal courts asked Congress for enough funding to cover basic operating costs in fiscal year 2008, while assuring both Houses that the Judiciary is doing its part to contain costs and enhance productivity.

Judge Julia Smith Gibbons, chair of the Judicial Conference Budget Committee, and Administrative Office Director James C. Duff appeared before both the House and Senate Appropriations Subcommittees on Financial Services and General Government on March 21. Their testimony is available online at www.uscourts.gov/Press_Releases/appropriations032107.html

"The Judiciary recognizes that the Administration and Congress are rightfully concerned about overall federal spending and budget deficits and that you face tough choices,” said Gibbons. “It may seem obvious, but it is worth noting that every item in our budget request relates to performing the functions entrusted to us under the Constitution. We have no optional programs; everything ultimately contributes to maintaining court operations and preserving the judicial system that is such a critical part of our democracy."

"We all know the important role that an independent federal Judiciary plays in our constitutional system," said Representative Jose Serrano, (D-NY), chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government, in his opening statement. "But the Judiciary, like other government entities, needs sufficient resources to properly function and perform its constitutional duties."

Gibbons noted that while spending for non-defense homeland security has more than tripled since 2001, "appropriations for the courts’ operating budget have increased only 33 percent to meet workload requirements, but onboard staffing levels have declined by 5 percent." The funding provided by Congress in 2007, she said, will allow the courts to begin to close this gap between staffing levels and workload. "It is therefore critical," Gibbons stressed, "that the courts be funded at a current services level in fiscal year 2008 in order to sustain the staffing gains funded in fiscal year 2007."

Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL), chair of the Senate subcommittee, asked Gibbons to comment on reports that perimeter security provided by the Federal Protective Service (FPS) has not been maintained or repaired, compromising security in those courthouses.

"This doesn’t appear to be a new problem; this appears to be a recurring problem," he said, adding, "I take this very seriously." Durbin cited the murder of members of Judge Joan Lefkow’s family, a judge Durbin had recommended to the federal bench in the Northern District of Illinois.

Gibbons responded that the concerns with FPS security were important enough that the Judicial Conference “felt compelled to take a position on it and to seek a change in our situation with respect to responsibility for our exterior perimeter security. Obviously, we all have a much more heightened awareness today than we did a number of years ago of the need for such security. And we are reluctant to let these things go once we find out about them and realize that we’re not having difficulties that are of an isolated nature."

Cost-Containment Efforts

Gibbons also told the subcommittees that cost containment is a top priority for the Judiciary. “The courts realize it is necessary, and we have had great cooperation Judiciary-wide as we have moved forward on cost-containment initiatives,” she testified.

    Among the initiatives are:

    • A rent validation project that has identified savings and cost avoidance over three fiscal years totaling $52 million.

      "Although it is quite timeconsuming," Gibbons said, "detailed reviews of GSA rent billings are now a standard business practice throughout the courts." The federal courts’ rent bill, payable to the General Services Administration, consumes about 20 percent of the courts’ operating budget and is projected to exceed $1 billion in FY 2008. The savings identified in rent overcharges are re-directed to other Judiciary requirements, “thereby reducing our request for appropriated funds,” said Gibbons. Additionally, Duff reported that the AO is working cooperatively with GSA on significant changes in how GSA determines or calculates courthouse rents.
    • Budget caps in selected program areas. The Judicial Conference approved a cap of 4.9 percent on the average rate of growth for GSA rent requirements for fiscal years 2009 through 2016. "This cap will produce a GSA rent cost avoidance by limiting the annual amount of funding available for space rental costs," said Gibbons, "and courts will have to further prioritize space needs and deny some requests for additional space."
    • Other cost-containment initiatives adopted by the Judiciary include redefined work requirements for probation officers, tighter restrictions on appointing new magistrate judges, consolidated computer servers—which is projected to save several million dollars over five years—and modified courthouse space design standards.

Fiscal Year 2008 Budget Request

The Judiciary is requesting a 7.6 percent overall increase above fiscal year 2007 enacted appropriations.

"The courts’ Salaries and Expenses account requires a 6.7 percent increase for fiscal year 2008," said Gibbons. "We believe this level of funding represents the minimum amount required to meet our constitutional and statutory responsibilities," she said. "While this may appear high in relation to the overall budget request submitted by the Administration, I would note that the Judiciary does not have the flexibility to eliminate or cut programs to achieve budget savings as the Executive Branch does."

The Judiciary’s funding requirements essentially reflect basic operating costs, which are predominately for personnel and space requirements and would account for 86 percent ($390 million) of the $452 million increase requested. The remaining $62 million is for program enhancements, of which $22 million would increase the non-capital panel attorney rate from $96 to $113 per hour.

"I realize that fiscal year 2008 is going to be another tight budget year as increased mandatory and security-related spending will result in further constrained domestic discretionary spending," Gibbons said. "The budget request before you recognizes the fiscal constraints you are facing." The Judiciary’s cost-containment efforts to date have significantly reduced the Judiciary’s appropriations requirements, without adversely impacting the administration of justice.

Gibbons urged the subcommittees to fund the Judiciary’s FY 2008 request fully in order to continue to maintain the high standards of the federal Judiciary. “A funding shortfall for the federal courts,” she cautioned, “could result in a significant loss of existing staff, cutbacks in the levels of services provided and a diminution in the administration of justice.”

Judiciary Appropriations
($000)
 
Appropriation Account

FY 2006

FY 2007
FY 2008

  Available*

Judiciary
Request

Enacted
Appropriations
Current Estimate

U.S. Supreme Court

Salaries & Expenses $60,143 $63,405 $62,576 $66,526
Care of Building & Grounds 5,568 12,959 11,427 12,201

Subtotal 65,711 76,364 74,003 78,727
U.S. Court of Appeals for
The Federal Circuit
23,783 26, 300 25,311 28,442
U.S. Court of International Trade 15,342 16,182 15,825 16,632

Courts of Appeals, District Courts
Other Judicial Services

Salaries & Expenses 4,330,190 4,691,196 4,480,521 4,778,856
Defender Services 709,830 803,879 776,283 859,834
Fees of Jurors 60,705 63,079 60,945 63,081
Court Security 368,280 410,334 378,663 421,789

Subtotal 5,469,005 5,968,488 5,696,412 6,123,560
Administrative Office 69,559 75,333 72,377 78,536
Federal Judicial Center 22,127 23,787 22,874 24,475
Judicial Retirement Funds 40,600 58,300 58,300 65,400
U.S. Sentencing Commission 14,256 15,740 14,601 15,477

  $5,698,588 $6,256,542 $5,975,732 $6,427,150
Supplemental 18,000 0 0 0
Vaccine Injury Trust Fund 3,795 3,952 3,971 4,099

Total, The Judiciary $5,720,383 $6,260,494 $5,979,703 $6,431,249
* FY 2006 appropriated funds include the effect of across-the-board discretionary rescissions where applicable.