To accommodate expected furloughs in federal law enforcement and defender services agencies, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia will stop scheduling most criminal matters on alternating Fridays from April 26 through September 30, court officials said.
Unlike those agencies and some federal courts, however, the D.C. court isn't planning to furlough or fire staff before the end of the fiscal year in September as part of mandated federal budget cuts known as sequestration. Under sequestration, which took effect March 1, non-defense agencies faced five percent in budget cuts.
New arrests will still be processed on the alternating Fridays, U.S. District Chief Judge Royce Lamberth said, while ongoing criminal trials will be recessed. He said the decision was made in consultation with the local U.S. attorney, U.S. Marshal, and Federal Public Defender's offices. Civil cases won't be affected; Lamberth said the U.S. attorney's office indicated that they expect to have lawyers available.
The court froze hiring and spending and moved money from other accounts, Lamberth said, to avoid furloughs or firings this fiscal year; staff won't be able to replace certain supplies and computers, for instance. However, he warned that the court's adjustments were a "temporary stop gap measure." Based on budget projections for fiscal year 2014, he said, "We will end up having to release staff. That’s when the real hardship is going to come."
Federal Public Defender A.J. Kramer said all lawyers and staff in his office will have to take 27 furlough days before the end of September to meet the budget cuts. They have flexibility in choosing which days, he said, but because many have been taking off Fridays, the scheduling changes at the courthouse made sense. Kramer said that as his office copes with the furlough days and reduced budget, the new court schedule "is just one small part."
The U.S. attorney's office and U.S. Marshals Service referred questions to the U.S. Department of Justice, where a spokeswoman confirmed that there were discussions with the court about the scheduling changes but declined to comment further.
The federal appeals court in Washington will not need to reschedule any cases this term, which ends May 16, according to Elizabeth Paret, circuit executive of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Paret said via email that the court clerk will consult with the U.S. attorney and Federal Public Defender over the summer to see if adjustments to the 2013-2014 term calendar are needed to accommodate those offices.
The U.S. courts faced around $350 million in cuts under sequestration. Some federal courthouses, including those in the northern and central districts of California, have announced furloughs, according to a release yesterday from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. The AO noted that a number of courts are scaling back scheduling of criminal matters to accommodate furloughed prosecutors, public defenders, and U.S. marshals.
Lamberth said that besides planning for future budget cuts, he was also preparing for the possible suspension of payments nationwide to court-appointed lawyers for indigent criminal defendants. He said that based on current projections, there was a good chance those payments would stop beginning in mid-August and continuing through the end of the fiscal year. "That will be a hardship on those lawyers," he said.
Bruce Moyer, government relations counsel for the Federal Bar Association, said that as federal judges weigh cuts, they "as much as anyone are mindful of the admonition that justice delayed is denied."
"There is a balance in honoring that maxim and the courts will do their best to dispense justice as promptly as possible," he said.