Federal judges implore Congress for respite from sequestration

Tuesday - 8/20/2013, 4:13pm EDT

Loretta A. Preska, chief judge, Southern District of New York

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Federal judges are warning Congress that automatic budget cuts due to sequestration have slowed the judicial system, endangered public safety and impeded federal defenders' ability to do their jobs.

Chief judges at 87 federal courts described the impact in a letter to Vice President Joseph Biden.

"The chief district judges, who ... are the boots on the ground at the trial court level, decided we had to cry out and appeal to Congress to help us be able to do our jobs," said Chief Judge Loretta Preska of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

Because the courts don't have any funded programs that can be cut, any budget cuts have to come from personnel.

Loretta Preska, chief judge, Southern District of New York

"So, for example, we don't have enough people right now to post the decisions judges make on the public docket on the same day. A judge issues a decision and the parties have to wait for it," Preska told Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp Monday.

The courts also have too few probation and pre-trial officers to supervise individuals on bail or supervised release. "We had to pull many of those people out of drug-treatment and mental-health treatment because of budget cuts," Preska said. "Those officers produce fewer searches now, and those searches almost always uncover illegal firearms, illegal drugs and child pornography."

When sequestration went into effect on March 1, the Federal Judiciary saw its appropriations for fiscal 2013 slashed by nearly $350 million. This led to a 10 percent cut out of the judicial budgets below the FY2012 level. The current budget proposals in the House and Senate for fiscal 2014 just bring the judicial budget back up to pre-sequestration levels.

"The entire judiciary is only about $7 billion a year," Preska said. "That's about two-tenths of 1 percent of the entire federal budget. So we're not talking about a lot of money here, but because it is our constitutional duty to resolve every case that comes to us, not just a few during a sequestration or budget situation, this means a lot to the court system, and we're really becoming unable to do our jobs."

Less money for the judiciary also impacts how cases are prosecuted and defended. Preska described how federal defenders in New York had to ask the judge overseeing the trial of terror-suspect Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, Osama bin Laden's son-in-law, for a postponement due to the budget cuts.

"Civil cases are affected because of our general inability to move the work more quickly," Preska said. "In big business cases, you need to get the decisions out to the public and the press in a timely fashion. And if we don't have the people to do that, we're falling down on our jobs."

The letter to Biden was sent a week ago, so it's still too early for the judges to have received a response, Preska said, especially since Congress is on its August recess.

"We do expect, though, that many of the chief judges will be meeting their senators and representatives to discuss the situation in their individual districts," she said.

The most pressing situation concerns the federal defenders who represent indigent defendants in cases where there is no conflict of interest.

"They've asked for adjournments," Preska said. "They've asked to be replaced in some cases. What that means is we then go to our Criminal Justice Act lawyers, who, instead of being on salary like federal defenders, they bill hourly. So, when the representation is shifted, the cost goes up. The costs to federal defender funding is increasing the defense costs overall by shifting it CJA lawyers."

The courts also had to delay paying the CJA lawyers to the end of the fiscal year.

"Just last week, the Executive Committee of the Judicial Conference provided not only for a deferral during fiscal year 2014, but it lowered the already pitiful $125 per hour rate that CJA lawyers are entitled to," Preska said. "They lowered that on a temporary emergency basis by $15 an hour. And that's going to make it much more difficult for us to attract competent lawyers to represent our defendants."

In the end, the budget cuts are bad for both the prosecution and the defense.

"On the prosecution side, any delay dims memories, you lose evidence, you can't find witnesses, so it increases the government's burden in proving its case," Preska said. "On the defense side, if the defendant is detained pending trial, the defendant, poor thing, sits in jail waiting for his trial at additional cost to the taxpayer and it's not fair to the defendant either."