MOSCOW, April 1 – RAPSI, Ingrid Burke. The US Federal Judiciary announced last month its expectation that the $350 million funding cut it would have to endure as a result of the sequester would have a devastating impact on the functioning of the US judiciary. By the start of April, the cuts have clearly begun to take a toll. 

Immediate impacts

The Office of Defender Services, a  branch of the US Courts that provides training and services to federal defenders, announced that public defense would be directly impacted by the sequester. An announcement on its website stated: “Sequestration has resulted in substantial cuts to the Defender Services budget for fiscal year 2013, which ends September 30th.  Congress has passed a spending measure that will finance the government for the remainder of [fiscal year] 2013, but it keeps in place the drastic cuts resulting from sequestration.”

To accommodate the requirement that federal defenders’ offices nationwide cut costs by 10%, the statement noted that office-wide furloughs had been required by most offices, and layoffs had been required in certain cases.

The statement added that the primary victims of these cuts are indigent defendants: “Aside from the direct financial impact on those providing federal criminal defense services, the cuts threaten to undermine the ability to provide legal representation to the poor.”

The courts are showing signs of strain as well.

Explicitly blaming the sequester, the US District Courts for both the Northern and Central Districts of California announced mandatory federal furlough days for the fiscal year of 2013, beginning in May. The Northern District has scheduled five furlough days for each of its four divisions. The Southern District scheduled seven for each of its three.

The US District Court for Colorado issued an order Wednesday announcing that it would have to take measures to cope with the strain imposed by budget issues: “Upon representation by the offices of the United States Attorney, the Federal Public Defender, and the United States Marshal for the District of Colorado, the Court finds that each office will suffer significant budget reductions resulting in mandated furlough days in varying number during the remainder of [fiscal year] 2013.” Citing these budgetary constraints, the court announced that as of April 26, it will no longer hear any criminal proceedings on Fridays, other than mandatory first appearances.

Furthermore, the court called off any proceedings that would require the presence of a federal defender on two upcoming Fridays.

Local newspaper The Salt Lake Tribune reported Thursday that starting in April, Utah’s federal court will only hear criminal cases every other Friday due to staff reductions and furlough days necessitated by the sequester. The report added that federal prosecutors, public defenders, probation officers, and US marshals in the state would suffer setbacks as well.

Federal judges’ voice concern for safety of judiciary

Leading federal judges pleaded with Congress earlier this month to safe the judiciary from the devastating impact threatened by the sequester.

Judge Julia Gibbons, chairwoman of the US Judicial Conference – the body that creates US federal court policy – summarized the cuts required to be taken by courts in accordance with sequestration as follows: “These actions are unsustainable, difficult, and painful to implement. Indeed, the Judiciary cannot continue to operate at sequestration funding levels without seriously compromising the Constitutional mission of the federal courts.”

In her concluding remarks, Gibbons reminded Congress that it remains a co-equal partner in the US system of checks and balances. By design, each branch of the federal government – legislative, judicial, and executive – is empowered by its own unique mandate to keep the other two branches under control.

Judge Thomas Hogan, Director of the Administrative  Office of the US Courts – the central support entity for the US judiciary – testified to further damage that the judiciary would endure if sequestration cuts are left unabated, explaining that his office would be ill equipped to provide the resources necessary to keep the courts strong.

Earlier this month, the Judicial Conference warned that the impact on the courts would be devastating, noting that it would take a toll on public safety due to a decreased number of probation officers; cases would be delayed due to a decreased staff numbers; court security would suffer for the same reason; the number of public federal defenders would diminish; and IT programs utilized by courts would suffer deep cuts.

The sequester

Several months of incessant grappling over partisan budget cuts between Congress’ Democrats and Republicans culminated on March 1 in a sequestration order, which called for arbitrary, across the board budget cuts in the amount of $85 billion.

The 2013 sequestration was born of the failure of the two parties to reach an agreement.

US President Barrack Obama placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of Congress Republicans. He did not mince words in a bitter statement released by the White House the day the cuts took effect: “Today, Republicans in the Senate faced a choice about how to grow our economy and reduce our deficit.  And instead of closing a single tax loophole that benefits the well-off and well-connected, they chose to cut vital services for children, seniors, our men and women in uniform and their families. They voted to let the entire burden of deficit reduction fall squarely on the middle class.”

The Republicans saw things differently.

That same day, Republican House Speaker John Boehner blamed Obama for the destructive cuts in a statement: “[To] my dismay, the sequester – a series of mandatory spending cuts proposed [by] the White House during the debt ceiling talks of 2011 – went into place as scheduled.  And it will be here to stay until the President and the Democratic-controlled Senate decide to join us in focusing on more responsible spending cuts to replace it.”

Boehner excoriated Obama and Washington Democrats for leaning on tax hikes as the only viable alternative to the sequester.
While blame for the ordeal has been scattered freely across Washington, the fact of the sequester remains, and its impact has the potential to prove devastating, as evidenced by the congressional testimony given by leading federal judges Tuesday.