The E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse in Washington, like federal courts nationwide, is preparing for the possibility of two worst-case scenarios on October 1: a government shutdown or the extension of mandatory budget cuts known as sequestration.
Washington's local judiciary also faces a unique challenge. Unlike any other jurisdiction, the federally funded local courts here—the D.C. Superior Court and D.C. Court of Appeals—are also paying close attention to the budget showdown on Capitol Hill. The federal judiciary announced this week that in the event of a shutdown, reserve funds were available to continue operating normally for 10 days.
The local court system, however, wouldn't be so lucky. D.C. Court of Appeals Chief Judge Eric Washington said that if Congress failed to pass a budget by the beginning of fiscal year 2014 on October 1, local court officials had submitted a plan to the Office of Management and Budget that involved sending home certain employees deemed "nonessential."
On the plus side, Washington said that because so many courthouse employees contributed to case processing and, as a result, public safety, a large percentage would be considered essential under the proposed plan. Sequestration and flat budgets in recent years have pushed the court to focus on its core functions, he said. A government shutdown would also affect D.C. government operations, since the city depends on Congress to approve local budget appropriations. Mayor Vincent Gray (D) has announced plans to declare all city workers “essential” in the event of a shutdown.
The federal courthouse in Washington, which houses the U.S. District Court, U.S. Court of Appeals and U.S. Bankruptcy Court, wouldn't be immune from changes. Beginning October 1, the courthouse would lose six courthouse security positions as part of a cost-saving plan developed by the judiciary and the U.S. Marshals Service. Those losses would force the court to close its entrance on Constitution Ave. beginning on October 1, according to D.C. Circuit Executive Elizabeth Paret.
The two public entrances on the eastern and western sides of the courthouse would remain open. The Constitution Ave. entrance is home to several sculptures and often serves as the backdrop for post-hearing press conferences. U.S. Marshals Service employees are anticipating 22 furlough days in fiscal year 2014, Paret said, but she added that the U.S. Marshal for the D.C. federal courts, Edwin Sloane, said he planned to schedule the time "so that court schedules are not affected."
Paret said the judiciary's interim plan for fiscal year 2014, which takes the sequester into account and would take effect even if there's a shutdown, included cutting funding to U.S. Probation Offices for court-ordered drug testing, substance abuse treatment and mental health services. Those cuts would reduce funding 10 percent below the full requirements, she said. The plan also would defer funding for rehabilitative services for offenders when they reenter the community.
In a memo sent earlier this week, U.S. District Judge John Bates, executive director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, warned that a "shutdown will worsen an already grave judicial crisis" caused by sequestration. Cuts to federal public defender offices and payments to lawyers appointed by judges to represent indigent criminal defendants has been a particular area of concern.
Chief Judge Washington said local court officials hadn't settled on a plan for fiscal year 2014 if the sequester continued. He said the only decision that had been made was to try to avoid furloughs or layoffs, which the courts were able to do last year. Still, he said, "everything is on the table, probably."
The local courts coped with sequestration last year by scaling back contracts for rodent control and other maintenance, slowing progress of construction projects and training employees to do other work in light of a hiring freeze.
"We believe that the steps were necessary and appropriate and nothing has surprised us," Washington said. "Nothing has come out of those decisions that we believe impacted our ability to dispense justice here and to process cases in an effective and timely fashion."