The Judicial Conference has expressed “deep concern” about pending congressional appropriations legislation, saying proposed funding levels that are far below the Judiciary’s request would have detrimental impacts on federal courts and the public.
The proposed funding levels would erode legal representation for criminal defendants and weaken IT and courthouse security, according to letters (pdf) sent July 28, 2023, to House and Senate Appropriations Committee leadership. The proposed insufficient funding also would increase risks to public safety due to higher caseloads for probation and pretrial services officers supervising offenders and defendants on court-ordered supervision.
The FY 2024 Financial Services and General Government (FSGG) appropriations bill, approved by the House panel on July 13 (H.R. 4664), provides $454 million less than the $9.14 billion being sought by the Judiciary. The Senate’s version of the bill (S. 2309), also approved on July 13, would cut even deeper, providing $571 million less than the Judiciary’s request.
“We recognize the highly constrained budget environment … and appreciate the efforts by the leaders of both FSGG subcommittees to provide the Judicial Branch with modest overall increases,” wrote Judge Amy J. St. Eve, chair of the Judicial Conference’s Budget Committee, and Judge Roslynn R. Mauskopf, secretary of the Judicial Conference. “However, we are compelled to advise Congress of the detrimental impacts … on the administration of justice and the functioning of the federal courts if those funding levels were enacted into law.”
The letter provided an especially stark warning about the impact on court-appointed legal representation, which is provided to more than 90 percent of all federal criminal defendants.
As a result of proposed House and Senate funding levels, a hiring freeze to all but critical positions needed to ensure office operations has been implemented for federal defender offices nationwide. St. Eve and Mauskopf said the Judiciary could be forced to lay off as many as 493 full-time positions in federal defenders’ offices, 12 percent of the total staff, or delay payments to court-appointed private lawyers by two to three months.
“To provide some context and perspective, the funding shortfalls at the House and Senate levels would have consequences comparable to the sequestration cuts in FY 2013 and early FY 2014,” the judges wrote. Those cuts led to 500 layoffs in defender offices, and more than 20,000 days of employee furloughs, as well as cuts in hourly compensation and delays in payments to court-appointed private lawyers.
“In many judicial districts, attorneys were not available to provide representational services as needed by the courts, resulting in case delays,” the letter noted. “It took the Defender Services program several years to recover from sequestration. … We ask for your assistance to ensure that funding shortfalls do not again constrain our ability to provide court-appointed counsel to eligible defendants.”
Funding for court employees and probation and pretrial services officers would require staff cuts of 3 percent under the House bill and 5 percent under the Senate bill, the judges wrote.
Cuts in court staff would affect core services such as case intake and docketing, jury management, processing of restitution payments to crime victims, and timely noticing to creditors in bankruptcy cases, as well as reduced public hours at filing intake counters.
Staffing losses in probation and pretrial services offices would “bring risks to public safety as remaining officers are forced to supervise higher numbers of defendants and offenders, including high-risk offenders,” the letter said. This would result in “overworked officers, a greater risk of recidivism, and a detrimental impact on defendants and offenders who need rigorous monitoring and supportive services to reintegrate successfully and safely into their communities.”
Other proposed funding levels would affect Judiciary cybersecurity and the physical safety of courthouses and judges.
The Judiciary would have to cut planned cybersecurity spending by as much as 25 percent, the letter said, at a time when a combination of aging IT systems and a rising volume and sophistication of threats “leaves the Judicial Branch highly vulnerable to cyberattacks.”
The Senate bill would require deferring some courthouse security improvements, such as courthouse access systems and replacement of outdated video security systems. According to the U.S. Marshals Service, the number of threats and inappropriate communications targeting judges and other personnel essential to court proceedings rose from 926 in 2015 to 3,706 in 2022, a 300 percent increase.
The Judiciary submitted its FY 2024 budget request to Congress in March, calling for an 8 percent increase over the previous year. In a cover letter accompanying the budget request, Judges St. Eve and Mauskopf said the funding is needed to maintain existing services, add staffing to address caseload increases, and bolster IT security.
“Our constitutional system of government, with separation of powers and checks and balances, cannot function as intended if the judicial branch is not sufficiently resourced,” the judges noted at the time the Judiciary’s budget request was transmitted. “We ask that Congress acknowledge the nature and importance of the work of the federal courts and the impact this work has on society and our democracy by providing the Third Branch with the necessary resources to carry out its constitutional responsibilities.”
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