The nation's highest-ranking law enforcement agent is standing up for his opponent in the courtroom.
Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. wrote an opinion piece Thursday in The Washington Post that called for better funding for the federal public defender program, joining the chorus of 87 federal chief judges and other legal professionals who have called on Congress to act.
Holder highlighted two examples of why, he argued, the federal public defender program is in dire straits because of budget cuts to the judiciary this year. Federal defenders representing the Boston Marathon bombing suspect are facing about three weeks of unpaid leave, and the director of one Ohio federal defender office laid himself off rather than terminate several more junior attorneys.
"This shameful state of affairs is unworthy of our great nation, its proud history and our finest legal traditions," Holder wrote. "In purely fiscal terms, the cuts imposed by sequestration defy common sense because they will end up costing taxpayers much more than they save."
Holder pointed out that every indigent defendant must have a lawyer, and the system will have to appoint private lawyers. "While federal defender offices are staffed by experienced, dedicated professionals operating in a framework that has proved both effective and efficient, panel attorneys often possess less experience and incur significantly higher fees," Holder wrote. "An increased reliance on panel attorneys may result in less desirable outcomes as well as significantly higher costs."
Last week, the 87 chief judges, who described themselves as "the boots on the ground in our nation's federal trial courts," signed a four-page letter describing how low funding has weakened courthouse security, reduced public safety because of probation and parole cuts, and caused dire problems for federal public defender offices.
Congressional committees have passed bills this year that would restore funding to the courts starting Oct. 1, but judicial branch officials are wary of another budget fight could leave the public defender program underfunded.
If that happens, the federal courts plan to slash pay for private attorneys taking indigent defense cases by $15 per hour, rather than cause more layoffs at federal public defender offices.