A bipartisan budget agreement announced on Capitol Hill late Tuesday is a sign that lawmakers could replace at least some of the painful budget cuts of the federal judiciary, agencies and the U.S. Department of Justice.
But the word from the budget staff at the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts: It's too early to tell.
The two-year budget agreement only presents the overall amount of federal non-defense discretionary spending. Still to come: The House and Senate full appropriations committees must agree on how to split up that discretionary funding among the appropriations subcommittees.
Then those subcommittees will have to decide what their priorities are within the bill, and whether that includes restoring all or part of the $350 million cuts to the federal judiciary as part of broader across-the-government spending reduction of sequestration.
As of now, there is no firm, public information on the timetable for that process, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts said.
There is reason for the judiciary to be optimistic, however. This fall, appropriations committees in both houses of Congress approved budgets that would, at a minimum, roughly restore money to the judiciary to pre-sequestration levels.
The last-minute deal to reopen the government after the October shutdown provided a relatively small bump of $51 million in annual appropriations for the federal courts and for public defenders, out of a $6.7 billion overall judiciary budget.
In letters to the appropriations subcommittees sent Dec. 5, before the budget deal announcement, the U.S. Judicial Conference and the administrative office once again described the "devastating impact" of the cuts and said the judiciary cannot continue to operate at sequestration funding levels.
The letters—signed by Judge Julia Gibbons of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit and chairwoman of the U.S. Judicial Conference's budget committee, and U.S. District Judge John Bates, director of the administrative office—ask for a funding level just over $7 billion.
The judges described 3,100 staffing cuts to the clerks of court and probation and pretrial services since July 2011. "These staffing losses are impacting the progress of cases through the courts, and cuts in probation and pretrial officer staffing mean less deterrence, detection, and response to possible criminal activity by federal defendants and offenders in the community," Gibbons and Bates wrote.
Sequestration cuts to the Defender Services program threaten the judiciary's ability to provide court-appointed counsel in criminal cases, with federal defender organizations reducing staffing by 400 in 2013, the letter states.
Cuts to security created "vulnerabilities throughout the federal court system," and emergency steps were needed to continue paying jurors to allow criminal and civil trials to move forward, the letter states.