Delays, furloughs, security cuts: sequester hits judiciary hard

Story highlights

  • Forced federal budget cuts took effect in March
  • Cuts impact most agencies, but some have budget flexibility
  • Judge tells Senate that impact on judiciary has been sweeping
  • Court officials seek help from lawmakers
Forced federal spending cuts have had a "devastating impact" on judicial operations nationwide, prompting a request to Congress for emergency funds to keep operations going at minimal levels, court officials say.
The effects of the so-called budget sequester that took effect in March has been particularly hard on the judicial branch.
The impact includes delays of civil and bankruptcy cases; furloughs of hundreds of court staff and federal public defenders. There have been reductions in court security as well as programs to monitor criminals on probation.
"We look to Congress to recognize the uncontrollable nature of our workload and provide the resources needed to perform this essential work," Judge Julia Gibbons told a Senate Judiciary subcommittee on Tuesday.
"If sufficient funding is not provided to the courts, we cannot provide the people of the United States the type of justice system that has been a hallmark of our liberty throughout the nation's history," Gibbons said.
The judiciary's budget has been cut under sequester nationwide by nearly $350 million for the current fiscal year, which ends September 30.
"Emergency measures" have been imposed by the Judiciary Conference, the federal court's internal policy arm.
"All aspects of court operations have been severely curtailed" as a result said Gibbons, a federal appeals court judge in Memphis, who also heads the administrative conference's Budget Committee.
The sequester has hit agencies throughout the government. But Congress has already granted some budget flexibility for homeland security, agriculture inspections, veterans services, and air traffic controllers.
Congress this week was asked to provide $73 million in supplemental emergency funding to keep federal courts running properly.
While courts have to deal with cuts, federal prosecutors do not at the moment.
Judicial officials have already begun implementing staggered cuts to such areas as staff salaries, court security and federal public defenders.
Court administrators have also warned civil jury trials may be stopped, if across-the-board funding cuts are not stopped.
One high-profile case delayed due to the cuts is the criminal prosecution of accused former al-Qaeda spokesman Suleiman Abu Ghaith.
He is a former son-in-law of Osama bin Laden and is among the most high-profile terror suspects to face justice on American soil.
His trial has been postponed until January 2014 after his court-appointed lawyers said budget cutbacks left their office-short staffed.
Separately, large numbers of court employees have been furloughed -- amounting to 8,600 court staff days and 12,500 public defender days. Nationwide the federal courts have been given individual discretion to implement furlough plans.