Sequester causes federal court delays
On March 26, President Obama signed into law a continuing resolution that will keep the government funded through October, making permanent the $85 billion in cuts that was part of the deal on the debt ceiling made by Congress in the summer of 2011. After more than a year of debates over the U.S. budget and contentious rhetoric over the sequester and its potential effects, Congress was unable to avert the $85 billion of automatic spending cuts. While the “Budget Control Act” took effect March 1, it is just now that the country is starting to see some of the direct effects of the sequester.
Around the country federal workplaces, including federal courts, have begun to lay off workers or shorten the work week through furloughs, as well as take other steps to work within the new budgets cuts. As a result, many Americans are seeing long lines at airports, health service centers turning people away, and even a potential increase in the cost of milk, all of which are side-effects of the sequester. However, few in the media have yet to note the sequester’s effects on the federal judiciary, which has hurt access by the public to the judicial process and to the court system overall.
Federal courts have already implemented multiple changes due to the sequester. Utah’s federal courts, for instance, have reduced the number of criminal cases that are heard each day. Additionally, criminal cases will now be heard only Monday through Thursday, and every other Friday. Over the past two years, the Utah courts have left 10 jobs unfilled after the departure of staff, resulting in a further decrease of the number of cases the courts are able to hear. Similarly, New Jersey’s Chief Justice Simandle has said that he will have to cut 14 percent of his budget, which will affect approximately 300 people who will lose work days and possibly employment. In Massachusetts, courts have also been hit very hard. The state’s Public Defender Office said staff members will be forced to take 16-and-one-half furloughed, or unpaid, days this year. Court cases will inevitably slow down because of these cuts, creating a backlog of cases, and ultimately to court delays. This is already a significant problem across the country as the judicial system has already suffered deep budget cuts from the recession over the past several years.
During the past 18 months, the federal judiciary has trimmed staff by 1,800, and now it must lay off or furlough an additional 2,000 employees. The U.S. Department of Justice is required to cut a total of $1.6 billion, and while it can make its own choices as to how to make those cuts, most of them will likely come from changes to staff, either through layoffs or furloughs of workers, because its budget is so heavily people-driven.
The full ramifications of the sequester are not yet known, and it is important for all involved in the judicial process to pay close attention to how these changes affect the dispensation of justice to U.S. citizens.