Federal Courts Face Budget Crisis

Congress did not pass a federal courts budget before it recessed. A continuing resolution provides funding only until November 20. A crisis looms.

...what is particularly worrisome this year is that Congress is considering a hard freeze: appropriations for all nondefense, nonhomeland security operations would be frozen at fiscal year 2004 levels. If that happens, wrote Chief Judge John W. Sedwick of the U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska in a letter to the Senate's Appropriation Committee chairman, the courts, which already stand "on the brink of a fiscal abyss" will "plunge over the precipice."

Under a hard freeze, the judiciary estimates it would have to fire or furlough 2,200 to 5,000 full-time employees-almost 20 percent of probation officers and clerks' office staff-and make a 50 percent cut in court operations costs. Money to pay attorneys who represent indigent criminal defendants under the Criminal Justice Act would run out next June, and money for jury fees would be exhausted in July.

Caseloads are increasing. There is a shortage of judges. Staff reductions will morph into salary cuts and reduced hours. Not a pretty picture, and there is no relief on the horizen.

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