Losses to Courts Underscore Funding Needs
In March, the federal Judiciary asked House appropriators to provide a 3.1 percent funding increase for fiscal year 2013—the lowest requested increase on record—at a time when courts already have cut staffing and implemented other sweeping cost-containment measures.
"As a result of fiscal year 2012 funding levels, and out of concern for fiscal year 2013, the courts have already downsized by nearly 1,100 people since July, 2011," Judge Julia S. Gibbons, chair of the Judicial Conference Budget Committee, told the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government. Both Judge Gibbons and Administrative Office Director, Judge Thomas F. Hogan, testified before the subcommittee.
Subcommittee chair, Representative Jo Ann Emerson (R-MO) assured Hogan and Gibbons that she appreciated the important work of the courts and that the subcommittee would try to ensure that the Judiciary has the resources needed to accomplish its important mission. But, she cautioned, "While I am appreciative of the fact that this is the smallest requested increase proposed by the Judiciary in decades, it's likely to be more than the subcommittee and the Nation can afford. I want to work with you . . . to identify savings in the federal Judiciary's costs while still providing the courts with the resources needed to fulfill your constitutional duties."
In his opening remarks, ranking minority member, Representative José Serrano (D-NY), noted that the Judiciary's budget contains funding "not just for judges, but for public defenders, court security, and probation and pretrial services at the federal level. These diverse activities show that you need to be sensitive not to just what happens inside of the courtroom, but what happens outside of it as well." Congress' job, he said, was "to make sure that you have the resources to do your jobs in a timely, efficient, and fair manner," and he expressed concern that, "if we're forced to underfund any part of your work, we will end up slowing down justice."
Gibbons warned that across-the-board cuts scheduled to take effect in January, 2013, under the Budget Control Act would have a devastating impact on the federal courts and the administration of justice in this country, resulting in the loss of either 4,400 employees or a four-week furlough for court personnel, as well as deep cuts to other Judiciary operations.
"Unlike many Executive Branch entities, we do not have programs or grants that we can cut in response to a budget shortfall," Gibbons said. "A large funding shortfall would result in crippling staffing losses in our clerks of court and probation and pretrial services offices nationwide."
"While I am appreciative of the fact that this is the smallest requested increase proposed by the Judiciary in decades, it's likely to be more than the subcommittee and the Nation can afford."
—Representative Jo Ann Emerson (R-MO)
Gibbons said that with reduced staffing levels, the courts will prioritize work to focus on essential activities first. "Our probation officers will have to reduce supervision of lower-risk offenders in order to focus limited resources on high-risk offenders. Staffing at public counters to assist individuals with case filings and court services will be reduced," she said. "With fewer employees to docket cases and perform quality assurance on electronic case filings, some case processing will be delayed."
The courts continue to focus on essential activities, cut costs, and streamline court operations. Gibbons pointed to the Judiciary's success in limiting the growth in space rent costs. As a result of cost-containment initiatives, the FY 2013 budget request for rent reflects a cost avoidance of approximately $400 million below estimates made prior to beginning cost-containment initiatives. Initiatives also have limited the growth in the number of court support staff and in the costs of law clerks, led to investment in technology that enhances court productivity and service, and updated staffing formulas to include incentives for efficiency and reduced duplication of services.
"No doubt these are difficult times," Hogan said in his testimony, "and the AO must continue its leadership and support in helping the Judicial Branch maintain our tradition of excellence. I am committed to continuing this practice while focusing on ways the AO and the courts can work more effectively and efficiently in this era of cost containment."
FY 2013 Request
For fiscal year 2013, the Judiciary seeks $7.19 billion in appropriations. Although an overall 3.1 percent increase over FY 2012 is requested, the Judiciary has elected to limit the growth of its largest account, Salaries and Expenses, which funds the bulk of federal court operations, to a 2.7 percent increase, or $5.15 billion.
The Defender Services program, which provides criminal defense services under the Criminal Justice Act to defendants unable to afford counsel, requires a 3.2 percent increase to $1.06 billion in FY 2013 to handle an estimated 205,000 defense representations. The Court Security account that funds protective guard services and security systems and equipment at federal courts, requires a 2.9 percent increase to $515 million.
"We believe the requested funding level represents the minimum amount required to meet our Constitutional and statutory responsibilities," Gibbons said, while noting the Judiciary also understands the fiscal constraints under which Congress operates. "We are committed to containing costs and exploring new and better ways of conducting court business. Our initiatives have significantly reduced the Judiciary's appropriations requirements, but we are very concerned we are approaching a point where we may be sacrificing the quality of justice as a result of budget constraints. . . I urge you to continue making the Judiciary a funding priority to enable us to maintain the high standards of the United States Judiciary."
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