At the start of the summer, the federal public defender office in Washington was bracing for significant layoffs—at least 30 percent of attorneys and staff—by the end of September. Layoffs could still be on the table, but a recent decision by the executive committee of the U.S. Judicial Conference means they wouldn't be as dramatic.
Earlier this month, in an effort to protect federal public defender offices against "permanent damage," the committee announced a plan to reduce and delay compensation for private lawyers appointed under the Criminal Justice Act to represent indigent defendants.
As previously reported by The National Law Journal, the cuts would save around $50 million from the federal courts' defender services budget, which funds both the federal public defender offices and the private court-appointed attorneys. As a result, A.J. Kramer, the District’s federal public defender, said his office was expecting budget cuts in fiscal year 2014 of around 10 percent, instead of the 24 percent anticipated at the start of the summer.
The budget for fiscal year 2014, which begins October 1, is still in flux, though. Congress has yet to pass a budget, and it's unclear if the sequestration will continue. Appropriations committees in both houses of Congress approved budgets that would at a minimum roughly restore funding to the judiciary at pre-sequestration levels, but a partisan battle in Congress over funding priorities could throw those plans off track. The judicial conference made its decision in anticipation of continued cuts.
Even with reductions in private lawyer compensation, Kramer said he doesn't know yet what the extent of layoffs would be if the cuts continue, except that it would be "substantially less than what it would have been." Attorneys and staff had to take 10 furlough days this year—some voluntarily took more to help ease budget strains, he noted—and Kramer said he won't know until next month if they'll have to take additional unpaid days off before the end of the fiscal year.
"This fiscal year, we're still muddling through and we're going day-to-day essentially," he said. The cuts haven't interfered with the defender office’s ability to adequately represent clients, he said, "but we're living on the edge, I would say."
Kramer said his office had scaled back travel and expert expenses, and cut spending on computers and other supplies. When an investigator left the office recently to go to law school, he said, the vacant position was not filled. Other vacancies would also remain open.
The planned cuts affecting court-appointed private defense lawyers included reducing hourly rates by $15 and deferring up to four weeks of payments to the 2015 fiscal year. The cuts were "necessary to avoid permanent damage to the federal defender program," conference chairman William Traxler Jr., chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, said in an August 16 letter to U.S. District Judge Catherine Blake of Maryland, chairwoman of the Judicial Conference's defender services committee.
Without the revised funding plan, the federal public defender office in Washington faced a minimum 30 percent reduction in personnel—at least eight to 10 people from an office of around 25 attorneys and other staff, according to a memorandum prepared by the office in June.
Those cuts, Kramer wrote in the memorandum, would "dramatically change the nature of our office." Today, Kramer said his office will still have to find a way to absorb future cuts, but as things stood now it wouldn't be at "the magnitude of what we were facing."