Legal Industry News

March 29, 2012

Losses to Courts Underscore Funding Needs

The federal Judiciary yesterday 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.

Judge 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 programs.

“Unlike many Executive Branch entities, we do not have programs or grants that we can cut in response to a budget shortfall,” Judge Gibbons said. “A large funding shortfall would result in crippling staffing losses in our clerks of court and probation and pretrial services offices nationwide.”

Judge 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. Judge 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, updated staffing formulas to include incentives for efficiency and reduce duplication of services.

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, funding 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,” Judge 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.”

Image Credit: ©iStockphoto.com/fabiopb

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