Every year the Supreme Court issues a year-end report to address specific issues facing the federal judiciary. In line with last year’s report, the most pressing issue facing federal courts is the budget. Federal courts are constitutionally mandated to perform certain functions, such as ensuring the right to counsel for criminal defendants, and when financial constraints are imposed, it causes a severe impact on the efficiency of such services.

According to this year’s report, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. reiterates, as he has done in the past, that the costs of the Judicial Branch comprises “only the tiniest sliver” of the federal budget, two tenths of one percent to be exact. As such, federal courts have been forced to develop creative means to balance the workforce necessary to ensure judicial services, as well as maintain other court costs including upgrades in technology.

Federal courts faced a five (5) percent decrease in funding, effective March 1, 2013, with the implementation of the Budget Control Act of 2011. A number of emergency measures were implemented to ensure that constitutional and statutory requirements continued to be met, one of which was to cut staff. The loss of staff affects not only the efficiency of the court system, but also impacts the quality of the services provided to all who rely on such services. One particular group that has seen a substantial decrease in funding is federal public defender offices, which were forced to reduce its staff by eleven (11) percent in fiscal year 2013. A quick fact sheet on the impact of budget cuts to federal defender services can be found here.

Chief Justice Roberts touches upon the effects of the decrease of federal public defenders. For example, every defendant has the right to a speedy trial, as statutorily guaranteed by the Speedy Trial Act, 18 U.S.C. 3161 et. seq. When public defenders and court dockets are overloaded with cases and don’t have the manpower to ensure the timeliness of the administration of cases, it has severe implications on the rights entitled to criminal defendants. The budget cuts have also impacted probation and pretrial services, which are responsible for pre- and post-trial monitoring and assistance for defendants. It should also be mentioned that while federal defenders have faced budget constraints, the Department of Justice and U.S. Attorney offices have not been forced to take similar measures, thus creating an imbalance in the criminal justice system.

The Judicial Conference, which is the body delegated with the judiciary’s budget, requested $7.04 billion from Congress for the 2014 fiscal year. While that amount sounds a like a lot, keep in mind that it’s a small fraction of the overall federal budget (which is in the $3 trillion range). Chief Justice Roberts notes that some of these funds would go towards reinstating probation and pretrial service employees, as well as reverse cuts to drug and mental health testing and treatment of defendants. Without the requested budget amount, the report estimates that at least another 1,000 in court staff would be on the chopping block, thus causing further delays in federal civil and criminal cases.

Included in its request, the Judicial Conference requested $1.04 billion for defender services. This includes appropriations for indigent defendants, as well as services other than counsel that are necessary for effective representation, such as mental experts, investigators and the like. According to the report, deferred payment vouchers for services were issued in fiscal year 2013 due to the sequester and still need to be paid. Further, private defense attorneys appointed to represent indigent defendants are currently operating at a rate $15 lower than normal due to the budget constraints. This means that in non-capital federal defense cases, attorneys are currently being paid $110 per hour. Not only are defendants suffering from the fiscal burden on the judiciary, but the lack of incentive for private counsel to provide representation to indigent defendants is also taking its toll on the criminal justice system.

When the judiciary faces a budget crisis, it affects the fair administration of the criminal justice system as a whole. With almost 92,000 criminal case filings in 2013, not to mention active criminal cases carried over from the previous year(s), it is imperative to ensure that the judiciary is operating at an efficient status. Criminal defendants are brought into the court system involuntarily and are presumed innocent, which is why so many of these services are necessary and should be readily available. And while Chief Justice Roberts attempts to make light of the issue by concluding his report with references to the happy endings in A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life, it has yet to be determined whether Congress will take heed to his justifiable concerns addressed in the report.

The author of this blog is Margaret S. Ververis, an attorney specializing in Federal Criminal Defense matters with the law firm of Ferrari & Associates, PC. If you have any questions please contact her at 202-440-2581 or ververis@ferrariassociatespc.com.

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