LAST week, 87 chief U. S. District Court judges across the country sent congressional leaders a remarkable letter describing in sobering detail the impacts of budget cuts, aka sequestration, on the federal courts. These cuts come on top of years of inadequate funding for our courts.
The great majority of people never see the inside of a federal courtroom, probably thankfully so. Why, then, should we care that almost all of the chief district judges in the country have sounded an urgent alarm about the fiscal health of our federal courts?
First, the federal courts are one of three equal branches of government. They are not large, they are not loud and they are not expensive. But they are every bit as important to effective governance as the executive and legislative branches.
The federal courts ensure the rule of law and resolve conflicts, whether they affect technology, business, health care or individual rights. Likewise, the federal courts must apply many of our most important criminal laws, including laws on terrorism.
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Most significantly, the federal courts guard our Constitution and the extraordinary balance of rights, responsibilities and privileges it establishes. We have sustained that across more than two centuries — the very foundation of what makes our country so extraordinary. Without a strong, effective, and adequately funded federal judiciary, our system of government would not work.
The recent letter from chief judges, including Chief Judge Marsha J. Pechman of the Western District of Washington, spells out in detail the costs of sequestration cuts on top of chronic underfunding. While sequestration decreased funding by only $350 million, a drop in the federal budget bucket, the consequences to court services are large: the loss about 10 percent of probation and pretrial service officers to supervise individuals convicted of a crime and subsequently released from prison; a 30 percent cut to court security at a time when security is especially critical for terrorism trials; and the loss of essential funding to provide effective legal representation to indigent defendants accused of a crime, a fundamental constitutional guarantee.
These budget cuts ultimately will limit the ability of our federal courts to handle civil jury trials and schedule criminal cases, the core of the courts’ role.
The impact of the sequestration cuts in the court’s Western District of Washington is grim: the court’s Probation and Pretrial Services, which supervises more than 1,600 criminal offenders, has had to reduce staff by nearly 20 percent and cut funds for most drug- and alcohol-treatment programs. These tools are essential to rehabilitation, deterrence and community safety.
The Federal Public Defender’s Office, which provides counsel to criminal defendants who cannot afford an attorney, has had to close every other Friday. Its staff must now either work unpaid or do a full week’s work in only four days. Ultimately, these budget cuts will cost taxpayers more money by creating new demands on the courts and the government.
Federal judges are uniformly reluctant to speak publicly about current political issues. They are deeply committed to quietly fulfilling their constitutional role as impartial decision makers in each individual case that comes before them without regard to politics, trends or public opinion. Yet 87 of these front-line judicial officers have taken the extraordinary step of joining together to warn congressional leaders that the very ability of the federal courts to function is at stake.
They also point the way forward: Both the U.S. Senate and House have addressed funding for the courts in proposed budgets, although they would not provide the kind of funding the courts need and deserve. The judges further warned that another year of court funding at sequestration levels through a “continuing budget resolution” would be disastrous.
All of us should pay close attention to what these judges have said. U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., will make key decisions about court funding as chair of the Senate Budget Committee. Murray and all of us have a duty to respect and protect the future of our federal courts. They are one of the most extraordinary institutions of government anywhere in the world.
Jennifer Wellman, president of the Federal Bar Association of the Western District of Washington, is an attorney with the Federal Public Defender in Seattle. Todd True, chair of the Ninth Circuit Lawyer Advisory Board, is an attorney at Earthjustice in Seattle.