A bipartisan appropriations bill released Monday night would provide the federal courts an increase of $316 million in discretionary spending—or 5 percent above current funding—for the 2014 fiscal year, according to a summary of the 1,582-page bill from the Senate Appropriations Committee.
That would almost erase the $350 million in budget cuts to the judiciary in March as part of sequestration, which has caused almost a year of layoffs and furloughs in the federal courts and threatened the judiciary's ability to pay court-appointed private counsel in criminal cases.
The bill would set funding for U.S. Supreme Court salaries and court operations such as courthouse security, the cost of court operations for other federal courts, including Federal Defender organizations.
Karen Redmond, a spokeswoman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, said in a written statement Tuesday the judiciary is "pleased" with the funding, which is essentially the level the courts sought in December.
The Executive Committee of the U.S. Judicial Conference will meet next month to develop a spending plan to determine how the appropriated funds will be used, Redmond said.
A spokesman for Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Bankruptcy and the Courts, said the bill is good for the federal judiciary. The courts should now have enough funding to get through the 2014 fiscal year without additional furloughs or cuts to service, spokesman Ian Koski said in a written statement.
"It should mean no more cuts to clerks' offices, no more cuts to federal defender services, and no more [Criminal Justice Act] panel payment deferrals," Koski said. "This is probably the minimum amount of funding the courts could really survive on this year, but it should at least stop the bleeding."
The funding in the bill, Koski said, reflects cost-containment efforts the courts have undertaken over the last few years. "The people that run our federal courts have become more efficient and done a remarkable job of doing more with less," he said. "This bill is a victory for them."
The proposed bill comes on the heels of a bipartisan budget agreement in December to avoid another government shutdown and to prevent the government from defaulting on its debt. The bill still needs to be passed by the House and Senate and be signed into law by President Barack Obama.
The bill provides $6.5 billion in discretionary spending, and an overall funding close to the $7 billion funding level that the judiciary asked for in December. Judge Julia Gibbons of the U.S. 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, wrote letters to Congress seeking that amount.
"This funding level is based upon the latest estimates of the Judiciary's needs and ensures that staffing and resources will be available for court offices, probation, and pretrial services offices," according to a Senate summary of the bill. "It restores severe cuts to Federal Defender offices and ensures that they are adequately staffed."
A $7 billion budget would allow the restoration of some staff positions and reverse cuts to drug treatment and mental health programs, according to a year-end report from Chief Justice John Roberts Jr.
Roberts, in that report, warned that continued budget cuts would result in courtroom layoffs, trial delays and a "deepening threat to public safety at courts around the country."
The House Appropriations Committee summary of the bill says funding for the federal courts "is equal to the fiscal year 2013 enacted level and consistent with their latest estimate of needs."
"This will provide funding for all federal court activities, the supervision of offenders and defendants living in our communities, the maintenance of court security, and the timely processing of federal cases," the summary states.
In their latest letter to Congress, on Dec. 5, Gibbons and Bates 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, according to the judges’ letter.
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.