Observers of the federal court system cannot recall the last time such a thing has happened, if it ever has. Chief judges in 86 of the 94 Federal District Courts around the country — more than half of them Republican appointees — have now joined to sound an alarm about the grave damage to the nation’s justice system caused by years of flat financing followed by Washington’s lunatic across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration. Their urgent plea to stop starving federal courts of adequate resources to fulfill the judiciary’s constitutional responsibilities deserves a response from Congress.
In a letter sent earlier this month to leaders of the House and the Senate and the Judiciary and Appropriations committees in both chambers, the judges described themselves as "the boots on the ground in our nation’s federal trial courts." They offered a detailed, firsthand view of the judiciary’s "unprecedented financial crisis" and its "devastating impact on court operations nationwide."
The judiciary’s current staffing level, the letter said, is the lowest it has been since 1999 despite a significant increase in the workload. Congress’s $350 million reduction in the federal judiciary’s budget for fiscal 2013 has slowed the processing of civil and bankruptcy cases and forced many courts to stop conducting criminal trials on all or some Fridays.
The cuts have also "put public safety at risk" by reducing the number of probation and pretrial services officers available to supervise defendants awaiting trial and people released into the community after serving time in prison for serious crimes. The judges expressed particular concern about the crippling reductions in the funds available for drug, mental health and sex-offender treatment programs and for drug testing and electronic and GPS monitoring of offenders.
The letter correctly highlights the negative effect of this year’s $50 million cut to the network of high-quality federal defender offices across the country. Many experienced lawyers representing indigent defendants have been laid off, and the salaries of the remaining defenders have been effectively reduced by a requirement that they take up to 20 unpaid furlough days. "We are deeply concerned that the cuts in federal defender offices will severely undermine and weaken a program that has taken years to build," the judges wrote.
With no end to Washington’s partisan budget standoff in sight, the executive committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States, which sets policy for the federal judiciary, recently took emergency steps to try to minimize further cuts to the federal defender program in the fiscal year that begins on Oct. 1, temporarily reducing the hourly rates for private court-appointed lawyers by $15 an hour and deferring some of the payments for their work to fiscal 2015.
These moves were necessary. But they will make it harder to recruit able private lawyers to do indigent criminal defense work.
The nation’s independent federal court system, though hardly perfect, is central to American democracy and the rule of law. Its current crisis was created by Washington politicians, and Washington politicians hold the power to solve it. The letter from the judges asks that Congress approve the $496 million increase in funding for the judiciary recently approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee even if a continuing budget resolution is enacted this fall keeping government spending at its current level.
That would be the reasonable thing to do, even though reason is in short supply in today’s Washington.