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March 2009

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


Federal Judiciary Asks for Funding in FY 2010 for Court System Already Feeling Impact of Economic Downturn

“A court system that is adequately funded and operates efficiently can be an anchor in these uncertain times,” Judge Julia Gibbons told Congressional appropriators in March and urged them to provide the fiscal year 2010 funding necessary for the Judiciary.

Gibbons, chair of the Judicial Conference Budget Committee, appeared with Administrative Office Director James C. Duff before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government. The Judiciary seeks $7.03 billion for FY 2010, an 8.7 percent overall increase above the fiscal year 2009 appropriation level assumed at the time the budget request was developed, which includes funds for clerks and probation offices nationwide.

“Having recently received an enacted appropriation, we will be revising our 2010 request and expect the overall requested increase will be reduced in light of the higher enacted levels as well as other updated information,” she told the committee.

Duff testified with Gibbons to present the FY 2010 budget request for the AOUSC and to support the overall request for the entire Judicial Branch. “The AO collaborates with the courts in many ways to improve the operation of the federal Judiciary,” said Duff. “A central focus of the AO continues to be the successful day-to-day financial management and stewardship of court resources.” The AO’s appropriation is less than 2 percent of the Judiciary’s total budget.

Congressman José E. Serrano (D-NY), chairman of the subcommittee, noted in his opening statement that the independent federal Judiciary plays an important role in our constitutional system. “Like other government institutions,” he said, “the Judiciary needs sufficient resources to properly function and perform its constitutional duties. This subcommittee has made it a priority to try to ensure sufficient funding for the proper functioning of the courts and the related functions included in the Judicial budget, such as probation and pre-trial services and public defenders.”

Gibbons told the subcommittee that the Judiciary is already feeling the impact of the deteriorating economy. Bankruptcy courts are reporting significantly increased filings when compared to a year ago and there is potential impact on the courts’ criminal caseload as thousands of fraud investigations—many connected to the current economic downturn—work their way to the court system.

“The economic situation we face is far reaching and affects all aspects of the Judiciary’s work,” Gibbons said. “Courts provide a forum for individuals or companies who are forced to file bankruptcy proceedings, for those who have suffered losses and are seeking civil monetary remedies, and for those accused of crimes.”

Long before the current crisis, the Judiciary was engaged in an aggressive cost-containment effort, allowing the Judiciary to request more modest budget increases. For example, the Judiciary reevaluated its courthouse construction program during a 2-year construction moratorium from 2004 to 2006, identified discrepancies in rent charges through a national rent validation initiative, established a cap of 4.9 percent in the average annual rate of growth for GSA rent requirements, amended the U.S. Courts Design Guide to reduce office and chambers size, and signed a Memorandum of Agreement with the GSA on the way the Judiciary’s rent is calculated for all federally-owned courthouses delivered in the future. “In fiscal year 2005, we projected that our current GSA rent bill would be $1.2 billion in fiscal year 2010,” said Gibbons. “I am pleased to report that, because of cost-containment, our current GSA rent estimate for fiscal year 2010 is now projected to be $ 200 million less…”

When the Judiciary initiated cost-containment, personnel costs threatened to rise above obtainable levels. “The Judiciary is seeking ways to reduce our requirements or at least reduce our rate of growth,” Gibbons told the subcommittee. “At its September 2007 meeting, based on a major court compensation study, the Judicial Conference approved recommendations that will slow the growth in personnel costs throughout the Judiciary… We estimate these measures may save up to $300 million from fiscal year 2009 through fiscal year 2017.”

Information technology initiatives enhanced efficiency and reduced costs. New technology has allowed the consolidation of Judiciary servers, reducing by 89 the number of servers needed just to run the jury management program. The recently completed consolidation of servers for the national accounting system will result in savings and cost avoidances totaling $55.4 million through fiscal year 2012.

“The Judiciary is a leader in taking state-of-the-market technology and adapting it to the courts’ unique needs, and we continually look for innovative ways to apply new technologies to our operations,” Gibbons said. Among those innovations are electronic reporting system kiosks that optimize supervision time and enhance probation officer efficiency, and a Decision Support System that puts a warehouse of data at the fingertips of probation and pretrial officers, with an array of tools to analyze and report the information.

These innovations are particularly important because, as Gibbons told the subcommittee, the workload in the Judiciary’s probation and pretrial services programs continues to grow. The number of convicted offenders under the supervision of federal probation officers hit a record 120,676 in FY 2008 and is expected to increase again in 2009 to 123,600. In addition to the increased workload, the work of probation officers has become significantly more challenging. For example, in 2008, 46 percent of these offenders were convicted of narcotics trafficking offenses and 19 percent were convicted of either violent, sex, or weapons offenses, compared to 29 percent and 9 percent respectively in 1998.

Bankruptcy filings also are expected to increase significantly in 2009 and, in the wake of the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005, these filings now carry with them new docketing, noticing and hearing requirements that make addressing the petitions far more complex and time-consuming.

The FY 2010 Budget Request

The Judiciary seeks an 8.7 percent overall increase above the FY 2009 appropriations for fiscal FY 2010. Funding requirements reflect basic operating costs, of which more than 80 percent are for personnel and space requirements.

Eighty-six percent of the $562 million being requested would fund base adjustments—items for which little or no flexibility exists, including pay and benefit increases, rent increases, funding for information technology programs, and costs associated with Criminal Justice Act representations.

The remaining $80 million requested is for program enhancements, which includes additional staff and costs to address FY 2010 workload increases, primarily in bankruptcy, probation and pretrial services, six additional magistrate judges and staff, courtroom technology improvements, an increase in the non-capital panel attorney rate from $110 to $142 per hour, Supreme Court perimeter security and repairs to the court’s roof system, education and training enhancements, and start-up costs for one new federal defender organization.