The effects of this month's steep federal budget cuts are becoming clearer in court districts across the country, with judges, clerks and legal agencies from California to New York announcing courthouse closings and furloughs.
In Colorado, U.S. Chief District Judge Marcia Krieger ordered an end to hearings and trials in criminal cases on every Friday for five months, from April 26 through September. The federal public defenders, prosecutors and marshals face furloughs, Krieger wrote, and they are "integral to proper adjudication of criminal matters."
As in Colorado, other courts are targeting Fridays for closures because the supporting agencies and their attorneys will take furloughs. The clerk of court in the Central District of California announced it will severely curtail services at its three courthouses on seven Fridays from April through, accepting only mandatory and emergency filings.
A month after the $350 million budget cuts for the courts, part of a mandatory $85 billion government-wide cut called sequestration, many of the consequences are still unknown.
Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. sent a letter to employees Thursday that said he is postponing until mid-April the decision on furloughing Department of Justice employees. "I fully understand you may be anxious about the possibility of furloughs in your component; however, the Department needs more time to determine if we can avoid furloughs this fiscal year," Holder wrote.
Holder has already transferred $150 million from the DOJ to the Bureau of Prisons to avoid furloughs of 3,750 staff each day. And he sent a note to department heads, ordering them "to heighten our scrutiny of all spending and redouble our efforts to reduce expenses."
That includes hiring restrictions, delaying entry into new contracts, and curtailing travel, training, conferences and cash awards. "Please understand that our current funding situation does not mean 'business as usual,'" Holder wrote.
In the nation's federal courts, decisions are starting to be made about the rest of the fiscal year. Utah's federal judges will hear criminal cases every other Friday starting in April, the Salt Lake City Tribune reported.
The Federal Public Defender's Office in western New York now plans 20 unpaid furlough days for its staff, which will end some criminal hearings and trials on Fridays, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reported.
At the Federal Defenders of New York, executive director David Patton had to tell the 39 attorneys and 39 staff members who work in the Southern and Eastern districts they each will have to take 27 days of unpaid leave beginning March 25 and ending on September 30.
"It's been devastating—people are, in essence, taking a 20 percent pay cut," Patton said. "Our budget is being cut 10 percent, but since we're half way through the fiscal year, it's really 20 percent of our budget."
St. Louis federal public defender Lee Lawless told American Public Media that he would furlough 26 staff for two days a month, including himself. And in Seattle today, federal public defenders closed offices for unpaid furloughs through September, and federal prosecutors there have been served with notice that up to 14 days of furloughs could begin next month, the Seattle Times reported.
Legal Times affiliate New York Law Journal contributed to this report.