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Statement on Impact of Sequestration on Judiciary, Defender Funding

Statement of Chief Judge William B. Traxler, Jr., Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States.

The Executive Committee of the Judicial Conference is responsible for developing a spending plan for the federal Judiciary’s annual Congressional appropriation. This process involves significant input from Conference committees, and under the best of circumstances, is a difficult and complex task.

The current fiscal year presents unparalleled challenges. Budget sequestration has reduced the Judiciary’s overall funding by nearly $350 million from the level provided in Fiscal Year 2012. The impact of sequestration on the Judiciary is particularly harsh because the courts have no control over their workload. They must respond to all cases that are filed, whether they are by individuals, businesses, or the government.

In February 2013, the Executive Committee implemented a series of emergency measures that were intended to mitigate the impact of sequestration to the best extent possible. Nevertheless, significant shortfalls remain.

Funds have been reduced for probation and pretrial staffing, which means less deterrence, detection, and supervision of released felons from prison. Related funding for drug testing, drug treatment and mental health treatment were cut by 20 percent. Money for security systems and equipment has been cut 25 percent and court security officer hours have been reduced. Cuts in court staffing and hours threaten to impact public access and slow case processing. National information technology upgrades to improve infrastructure and financial management have been delayed. Sequestration is impacting federal court operations and programs throughout the country, including a $51 million shortfall in the FY 2013 funds in the Defender Services account.

The Judiciary is committed to doing its part to reduce the fiscal deficit our country faces. However, a significant problem arises when budget cuts impact our responsibilities under the Constitution. This happens when we cannot afford to fulfill the Sixth Amendment right to representation for indigents charged with crimes. The predictable result is that criminal prosecutions will slow and our legal system will not operate as efficiently. This will cost us all in many different ways.

With regard to the Defender account shortfall, at its April 16, 2013, meeting the Executive Committee examined all aspects of this account, scrubbed expenses where possible, and approved a final spending plan. After lengthy discussion, the Committee determined to allocate the available funds in a manner that, without further impacting payments to private attorneys, will at least limit the number of days that any defender organization staff must be furloughed. The result is that some federal defender offices will still be forced to furlough their employees up to 15 days. The Committee also approved deferral of payments to private panel attorneys for the last 15 business days of the fiscal year.

The defender program has no flexibility to absorb cuts of this magnitude without impacting payments to private counsel appointed under the Criminal Justice Act and Federal Defender Organizations, which pay for government lawyers to provide counsel to eligible defendants. Federal defender offices already have fired and furloughed staff, as well as drastically cut essential services. Criminal prosecutions have been delayed because defender organizations do not have the staff necessary to continue their representation of the defendant or the funds to pay for experts or other cases costs.

The Executive Committee’s allocation of funds is not a solution to the $51 million shortfall. It represents a conscientious effort to mitigate the adverse impact on both personnel and services. It also means that millions of dollars in expenses in this account will be shifted to FY 2014, even though they were not part of the Judicial Branch budget submission to Congress. This level of funding is unsustainable without relief from Congress.

The Judiciary will soon ask the Office of Management and Budget to transmit an FY 2013 emergency supplemental funding request to Congress to help ameliorate the impact of the sequestration cuts to defender services, probation and pretrial services, court staffing, and court security.

In his 2012 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary, the Chief Justice said:

"A significant and prolonged shortfall in judicial funding would inevitably result in the delay or denial of justice for the people the courts serve."

I share this grave concern.

Related Topics: Defender Services, Funding, Sequestration