Updated 5/30/13 at 9:02 a.m.
A committee of judges tasked with deciding how the federal judiciary spends its money announced in mid-April that federal defenders wouldn't face more than 15 furlough days under mandatory budget cuts. Less than a month later, however, the committee alerted defender offices it had raised the maximum furlough time to 20 days.
The change wasn't publicly announced. According to a May 10 memorandum sent by Chief Judge William Traxler Jr., chairman of the Executive Committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States, the committee reconsidered its April decision after getting new information on how defender offices were coping with the cuts, also known as sequestration.
The new furlough plan meant lawyers and staff in the D.C. federal public defender office faced a month of mandatory unpaid leave—20 work days—as opposed to three weeks. The change was preferable to the 27 furlough days the office originally faced under sequestration, said Federal Public Defender A.J. Kramer, but he said they were disappointed.
"Obviously it's bad for morale. People are trying to get the work done while being on furlough, while their pay has been lowered," Kramer said. "It's very difficult to take care of matters that deal with clients when you're not in the office."
Kramer said furloughs were affecting cases in terms of scheduling, but not in any substantive ways to date. He warned the cuts could have more serious consequences if his office ran out of money to hire experts or for other services, or couldn't take certain cases because they lacked resources and people. "So far that hasn't happened, but there are four months left in the year," he said.
According to Traxler's memo, the judiciary set aside $6.4 million in April to lower the maximum furlough time in defender offices to 15 days. During a May 10 meeting of the executive committee, however, the defender services committee presented new information on steps certain offices were taking to deal with the cuts besides furloughs. A spokesman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, David Sellers, said via email that those steps included cutting training, reducing libraries and office space, offering employee buyouts and using up money set aside for experts.
Following "extensive discussion on the difficult choices presented," Traxler wrote, the executive committee decided to redistribute the $6.4 million in a way that would give relief to defender offices coping with the cuts in ways besides furloughs.
Sellers said $3.3 million will be used to keep furlough time down to 20 days in offices that originally faced more than 20 days. There were approximately 30 defender offices nationwide in that group, including the District.
The remaining money—minus a "small reserve," according to Traxler's memo—will go on a pro rata basis to defender offices that faced 20 or fewer furlough days. Those offices will be encouraged to use the money to bring down furlough time.
Sellers said it's rare for the executive committee to make public announcements following meetings.
The executive committee's May 10 decision did not affect plans to delay payments to private lawyers appointed by the court to represent indigent criminal defendants. Those payments, which also come out of the defender budget, will be suspended for three weeks at the end of the fiscal year.
Federal court officials have appealed to Congress for emergency funding, including $41 million for the federal defender system. Under sequestration, the judiciary faced $350 million in budget cuts before the end of the fiscal year. Officials have expressed concern about how temporary measures, such as deferring payments to private criminal defense lawyers, will affect the fiscal year 2014 budget.
A previous version of this story misstated the amount of emergency funding requested by the judiciary.