The federal court system needs a budget increase next year to avoid problems like more delays in processing cases and reduced supervision of felons on release, an official with the Judicial Conference of the United States told a congressional panel on Wednesday.
Judge Julia Gibbons, the chair of the conference’s budget committee, told a House Appropriations subcommittee that the courts already downsized nearly 1,100 employees in the last nine months because last year’s $7 billion budget did not include an increase.
And if there is another flat budget, the courts will have to shed another 1,000 positions, she said.
The conference’s 2013 budget request of $7.2 billion – a proposed 3.1 percent increase, the smallest the conference has ever requested – does not include any new support staff to address workload needs, even though staffing levels are at 80 percent of what the court considers necessary, Gibbons said.
Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.), chairman of the appropriations subcommittee for Financial Services and General Government, said the courts would probably not get what they want and should focus on cuts instead. “It’s likely to be more than the subcommittee and the nation a can afford,” she said.
Gibbons said the courts continue to cut costs, including a $400 million savings for a program to contain the cost of courthouse space and rent. The courts are also limiting costs of law clerks and using technology to enhance productivity, Gibbons said.
More cost-cutting could result in difficult decisions, Gibbons said. The courts also have a number of cost-savings measures planned, such as increasing shared administrative services like human resources, procurement, financial management and information technology. The courts of appeals, district courts, bankruptcy courts and probation and pretrial services units can reduce costs by reducing staffing through those types of measures, she said.
Gibbons’ biggest warning to Congress was regarding automatic spending cuts – called sequestration – required by the Budget Control Act, signed into law in August. The law calls for a 7.8 percent cut in non-discretionary spending.
“Our latest analysis indicates a 7.8 percent cut would result in the forced downsizing of up to 4,400 employees or a four-week furlough for all court staff,” Gibbons testified.
Payments to private attorneys providing defense counsel services to clients in the courts' Defender Services program would have to be suspended for the last six weeks of the fiscal year, and federal the defender organization staff would have to be furloughed for six weeks, Gibbons said.
“And with insufficient funds to pay jurors, the courts would have to suspend all civil jury trials for the last six weeks of fiscal year 2013,” Gibbons said.
There is still time before January 2013 for Congress and President Barack Obama to agree to other cost-cutting measures, but Gibbons said she fears any agreement would also cut into the critical missions of the courts. “We do not have programs or grants that we can cut in response to a budget shortfall,” Gibbons said.
Newly-appointed director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, Judge Thomas Hogan, testified that budget constraints mean the judiciary is not moving forward any additional courthouse construction projects.
Hogan also encouraged the subcommittee to extend six temporary judgeships, and 27 temporary bankruptcy judgeships. A bill to extend those judgeships was passed in December.