If Congress fails to reach an agreement by March 1 to avoid $85 billion in automatic budget cuts known as sequestration, the District of Columbia's local courts system could have to find $14 million in savings from its fiscal year 2013 budget. Court officials don't expect layoffs or furloughs, but declined to release details on how they would make the required cuts.
The spending cuts would be spread across court operations, capital projects, and the defender services budget, which includes funding for court-appointed lawyers for indigent defendants. The chief judges of Superior Court and the Court of Appeals declined to discuss the court's sequestration plan, as did officials in the executive office.
In a letter in the court system's monthly newsletter, executive office officials said that under the plan, the cuts would likely have a "significant" effect on infrastructure projects. Superior Court officials have had longstanding plans to expand the downtown courthouse, and in an interview late last year, Chief Judge Lee Satterfield said those plans could be put on hold if the court was faced with sequestration.
"The DC Courts will be open as usual on Monday, with normal business hours and the same level of service to the public," court spokeswoman Leah Gurowitz said in a statement. Although court officials said in the newsletter announcement that they didn't expect furloughs or layoffs, Gurowitz did confirm that the court's sequestration plan would include not filling vacant positions.
The court's fiscal year 2013 budget is about $289.6 million, according to court statistics. That includes close to $195 million in funding for court operations and management, $39.3 million for capital projects, and $55.3 million for defender services.
The Office of Management and Budget has said that sequestration would require an annual budget reduction of around 5 percent for non-defense spending and 8 percent for defense spending. Since the 2013 fiscal year began in October, however, agencies would have only seven months to make the cuts, meaning the reductions would be equivalent to about 9 percent of non-defense spending and 13 percent of defense spending beginning March 1.
Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said that there's a chance the local court system would not have to find equal savings across the board, particularly if certain cuts carried constitutional implications, but that the White House isn't expected to offer guidance on that until Friday. "It's all a guessing game at this point," she said.
The city's Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency and the D.C. Public Defender Service, both of which are federally funded, would also face the cuts if Congress can't avoid sequestration. The court services agency, as a federal agency, could be faced with furloughs, according to a spokesman. The agency supervises adults on probation, parole or supervised release in Washington.
In a statement, agency spokesman Leonard Sipes Jr., said that its sequestration plan could include limits on overtime, the use of contractors, and hiring. The agency, which includes the Pretrial Services Agency, would have to make about $10.6 million in cuts. "[The agency's] first priority is public safety and we will take every measure to ensure the adequate supervision of offenders," Sipes said.
The Public Defender Service would face about $1.8 million in cuts. General Counsel Julia Leighton said in a statement that the office's contingency plan involves maintaining its core function of representing criminal defendants.
"To ensure that PDS lawyers will be available for court appearances and that work on client cases will continue, PDS will however need to find savings through operational and administrative cuts which would have an impact on our overall mission," Leighton said.
Beyond the local courts system, sequestration would have wide-ranging effects on the legal community. As previously reported by Legal Times, the cuts would affect the federal courts system, the U.S. Department of Justice and other law enforcement agencies, and civil legal services providers.