With no end in sight to the ongoing sequestration cuts, federal court judges and lawyers are growing increasingly concerned about the impact on our judicial system. Sequestration resulted in $332 million budget reduction for the federal judiciary, or approximately 5 percent of its current $6.97 billion budget.
With Congress set to return from break, the chief judges of nearly every federal district court recently took the unprecedented step of lobbying on their own behalf. In a four-page letter addressed to Vice President Joe Biden, the judges argued that deep funding cuts are interfering with the judiciary’s ability to adequately perform its responsibilities. The letter details the challenges the federal court system faces, from reduced court hours to weakened security to a decimated federal defenders program.
“The work of the Federal Judiciary derives from functions assigned to us by the United States Constitution and the statutes enacted by Congress. We do not have projects or programs to cut; we only have people. We must adjudicate all civil and criminal cases that are filed with the courts, we must protect the community by supervising defendants awaiting trial and criminals on post-conviction release, we must provide qualified defense counsel for defendants who cannot afford representation, we must pay jurors for costs associated with performing their civic duty, and we must ensure the safety and security of judges, court staff, litigants, and the public in federal court facilities.”
In addition, attorneys have voiced their concerns to President Obama and members of Congress. In a June letter, Federal Bar Council President Robert J. Anello wrote, “The importance of federal courts to our democratic system cannot be overstated. In their role of administering justice, the federal courts provide services that are mandated by the Constitution and protect the fundamental rights of Americans of all backgrounds.”
“These roles cannot be unreasonably curtailed in the face of budgetary constraints without doing violence to our system,” he added.
Of course, New Jersey residents are already familiar with what can happen when the courts become pawns in the political process. In 2011, New Jersey judicial vacancies caused by the political impasse between the Gov. Chris Christie and the Senate Judiciary Committee resulted in the suspension of divorce trials in Essex County for nine months.
In a bit of good news, both houses of Congress seem to recognize that the funding cuts must be remedied for fiscal year 2014, which starts in October. The House Appropriations Committee signed off on an appropriations bill that includes $6.5 billion for the courts, restoring the budget to pre-sequestration levels. Meanwhile, the Senate committee’s appropriations bill calls for $6.7 billion for the courts, an increase of $148 million. Of course, disagreements run rampant on other parts of the budget, which could lead to yet another political impasse that leaves the courts hanging in the balance.