UPDATED AT 8:14 p.m.
In his annual year-end report on the federal judiciary, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. on Tuesday warned that continued severe budget cuts would result in courtroom layoffs, trial delays and a “deepening threat to public safety at courts around the country.”
Perpetuating “a hard freeze at the sequester level,” Roberts said, would extend an emergency $15-per-hour rate reduction for private lawyers representing indigent criminal defendants, and reduced security for court personnel. It would also “pose a genuine threat to public safety” by postponing criminal trials, while delays on the civil side would mean “commercial uncertainty, lost opportunities and unvindicated rights.”
Roberts said he would have preferred to focus on other matters in his annual report, but “the budget remains the single most important issue facing the courts.” The entire federal judiciary accounts for just two-tenths of one percent of total federal outlays, he noted, but the cuts imposed by sequestration have severely hampered court operations.
“We began our cost-containment efforts nearly a decade ago, long before the talk of fiscal cliffs and sequestration came into vogue,” Roberts said. Belt-tightening efforts included savings on rent and staff, he said, and sharing administrative services across judicial districts. As a result, sequestration cut even more deeply, Roberts asserted, triggering a reduction in staff of 3,100, to 19,000 workers – the lowest level since 1997.
Roberts said he was grateful that the recent budget agreement establishes new limits that provide “an opportunity for the judiciary to receive some needed relief from sequestration” in the next two years.
In December, the Judicial Conference asked Congress to approve a $7 billion budget for the 2014 fiscal year – a level that is less than what the Senate voted for, but more than the House of Representatives approved. The budget request would allow the restoration of some staff positions and reverse cuts to drug treatment and mental health programs, according to Roberts.
Without naming people or parties responsible for legislative gridlock, Roberts called on Congress to set aside politics when it comes to funding the federal courts. He wrote, “The United States courts owe their preeminence in no small measure to statesmen who have supported a strong, independent, and impartial judiciary as an essential element of just government and the rule of law.”
Roberts used a touch of literary flair in his report, invoking Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life to introduce his budgetary laments. “The year’s end brings predictable constants,” Roberts said, “including the revival of favorite phantoms – Scrooge’s ghosts and George Bailey’s guardian angel – who step out from the shadows for their annual appearance and then fade away.”
Roberts continued, “There are, however, some cycles from which we would all wish a break. At the top of my list is a year-end report that must once again dwell on the need to provide adequate funding for the judiciary. I would like to choose a fresher topic, but duty calls.”
The chief justice concluded, “Both A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life have happy endings. We are encouraged that the story of funding for the federal judiciary – though perhaps not as gripping a tale – will too.”
Reacting to Roberts' report, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) released this statement: “The chief justice's annual year-end report again focuses on the significant financial strain on our federal courts. These cuts have a real impact for Americans seeking justice, and pose real threats to the dedicated public servants who work in our nation’s federal courts as well as to members of the public. A return to regular order in our appropriations process will, I hope, ensure that our courts have the resources they require."
Leahy said Roberts had neglected to highlight another crisis facing the judiciary: the high number of vacancies in the ranks of district and appeal court judges. "We must not take for granted that we have the greatest justice system in the world, and ensuring this continues requires the Senate to fulfill its constitutional duty of advice and consent.”