Updated at 5:35 p.m.
It's rare for a furlough announcement to be considered good news, but that was the case yesterday for the federal public defender office in Washington.
The Executive Committee of the Judicial Conference, the body of judges that decides how the federal judiciary spends its money, announced it had reached a plan for the defender services budget under federally mandated cuts known as sequestration. The details are still being hammered out, but federal public defender offices would face no more than three weeks of furloughs—a significant amount of time, but less than originally projected for many offices.
The D.C. federal public defender's office faced 27 furlough days under sequestration. Federal Public Defender A.J. Kramer said today that the announcement was "welcome news." Still, he said that until the final details are worked out and they know exactly how many furlough days attorneys and staff will have to take, "you don't count on anything until it's done."
"It creates more uncertainty," Kramer said. But he added that "in this respect, it’s better uncertainty than if we were told it was more days."
Local federal public defenders have started taking furlough days, which Kramer said had already led to delays in cases. "It just makes it extremely difficult," he said.
The defender services budget also funds payments to private lawyers appointed by the court to represent indigent criminal defendants under the Criminal Justice Act. The sequestration plan would suspend those payments for three weeks at the end of the fiscal year in September. There are about 100 lawyers in Washington who serve on the CJA panel for the local U.S. district court.
The federal judiciary spends an estimated $1.8 million per day on payments to private lawyers across the country, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. Three weeks of suspended payments would save approximately $27 million.
Under sequestration, the defender services budget faced a $51 million shortfall. Taking into account money saved by deferring payments to private lawyers, most, if not all, of the remaining $24 million would come from funding for public defender offices.
The defender services budget is personnel-heavy. According to administrative office data, about 57 percent pays for public defender offices and 42 percent goes to payments for private lawyers. About one percent of the budget covers program administration. The defender services budget under sequestration is around $988 million.
The deferred payments to private lawyers will be paid once the 2014 fiscal year begins October 1. In yesterday's announcement, Chief Judge William Traxler, Jr. of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit said the judiciary planned to ask Congress for "emergency supplemental funding."
Payment suspensions to private lawyers meant "that millions of dollars in expenses in this account will be shifted to FY 2014, even though they were not part of the Judicial Branch budget submission to Congress," said Traxler, chairman of the Executive Committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States. "This level of funding is unsustainable without relief from Congress."
Jeffrey "Chip" Frensley, the chief CJA panel representative to the U.S. courts and a Nashville, Tenn.-based lawyer, said the three-week suspension was "not insignificant," but that the executive committee "reached the best balance that was out there."
"It's very positive to see the support that the executive committee has for the defender services program and as a panel lawyer we're very glad to see that they've not taken any action or recommended any cuts to the panel attorneys," he said. Still, he added that he was concerned the deferred payments "may cause some panel lawyers to rethink being involved in accepting appointed cases in federal court."