Supreme Court Associate Justices Anthony Kennedy (L) and Stephen Breyer await the start of a hearing on Capitol Hill March 14, 2013 in Washington, DC.

Story highlights

Justices Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer testify before Congress

They ask lawmakers to ensure courts have "the resources they need"

Risks include innocent people being convicted, Breyer

Washington CNN —  

Members of the Supreme Court on Thursday warned forced spending cuts pose a serious threat to the U.S. justice system, saying they are “simply unsustainable” and will lead to a reduction of critical legal services.

Justices Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer appeared before a panel of the House Appropriations Committee, urging lawmakers to ensure the so-called sequestration measures do not linger.

“We know our judicial colleagues, and we respect and admire their caution and their sense of high responsibility in making sensible and realistic budget requests,” said Kennedy, who heads the high court’s internal budget committee. “They are on the front lines of the legal system. That system must work with great efficiency if we are to fulfill the law’s promise that in a free society justice is accessible and prompt and fair. So we take this occasion to ask you to ensure that all of our courts have the resources they need in an urgent way to serve our free society.”

The third branch of government has 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 in coming months, if the across-the-board funding cuts are not stopped.

Those $85 billion in automatic spending cuts kicked in March 1 after the president and Congress failed to reach a government funding deal.

Breyer said the cuts are especially difficult because of the judiciary’s role in the overall federal budget scheme. The courts amount to just two-tenths of 1% of federal tax dollars spent, and the Supreme Court budget itself makes up just 1% of that.

“Could you survive without police officers” at the court, Breyer said. “I suppose. But it would only dramatically increase the risk of someone being hurt” at the heavily visited courthouse, the national symbol for the rule of law.

Breyer also warned the cuts raise the risk that innocent people would be wrongly convicted of crimes.

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts in the past week announced emergency measures to contain costs, sent to all 94 judicial districts across the United States and its territories.

The courts must absorb about $350 million in forced spending cuts, a 5% reduction. Most of that will come from salaries, so individual courts have been asked to work up plans for possible layoffs, furloughs or reduced courthouse hours.

Thomas Hogan, head of the office, predicted the cuts would mean 2,000 layoffs, or thousands more furloughs.

“Public safety will be impacted because there will be fewer probation officers to supervise criminal offenders released into our communities,” said Hogan, a senior federal judge.

He urged individual courts to delay implementing any involuntary personnel cuts until April, when officials hope to have a better idea of how long the forced spending cuts could last into the fiscal year.

The federal court system and its administrative offices operate on an annual budget of nearly $7 billion. That includes judges trying and hearing cases and appeals, both criminal and civil; managing pretrial, defender, and probation offices; and maintaining the bankruptcy court system. Most of the money – about 62% – goes for personnel costs.

Chief Justice John Roberts last December said the Supreme Court itself requested a 2.8% decrease in its $75.55 million operations budget in fiscal year 2012. He added that a 3.7% decrease is expected for fiscal year 2014.

Currently there are about 85 judicial vacancies, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. Thirty appointments by the president are pending, awaiting Senate confirmation.

Making things worse for the courts is that they cannot control their caseload, and are forced by the Constitution and by federal law to adjudicate trials, suits, and appeals in a timely manner, along with full due process. Kennedy said cuts in one key area could create a trickle-down effect, and slow or stop courts from functioning.

He cited the federal public defenders who represent indigent defendants, saying that reducing their staffing could lead to cases being tossed out.

“The courts are not in the habit of creating crisis in order to gain attention,” said Kennedy, “but if we start dismissing criminal prosecutions, this is dangerous to the rule of law.”