The Sequester’s Impact on the Judiciary

In his 2013 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary, Chief Justice John Roberts comments on the negative effects of the sequester on the operation of the judicial branch.

By its own initiative, the Judiciary had already achieved significant cost reductions when the sequester provisions of the Budget Control Act of 2011 went into effect on March 1, 2013. The five percent across-the-board sequestration cut reduced Judiciary funding by nearly $350 million in fiscal year 2013—a reduction on top of the cost savings that the courts had already achieved. The impact of the sequester was more significant on the courts than elsewhere in the government, because virtually all of their core functions are constitutionally and statutorily required. Unlike most Executive Branch agencies, the courts do not have discretionary programs they can eliminate or postpone in response to budget cuts. The courts must resolve all criminal, civil, and bankruptcy cases that fall within their jurisdiction, often under tight time constraints. And because many of the Judiciary’s expenditures, such as rent and judicial salaries, must be paid regardless of sequestration, the five percent cut that was intended to apply “across-the-board” translated into even larger cuts in discretionary components of the Judiciary’s budget.

The Executive Committee of the Judicial Conference—the judicial body responsible for funding allocations—responded to the sequester by adopting a number of emergency measures. Among its actions, the Executive Committee imposed a 10 percent reduction on funding allocations to court units, which resulted in further staffing losses in the courts. The combined effects since July 2011 of flat budgets followed by sequestration reduced on-board court staffing levels by 3,100 (14 percent) to about 19,000 employees—the lowest staffing level since 1997, despite significant workload increases over that same period—and reduced federal defender offices staffing by 11 percent in fiscal year 2013 alone.

Sequestration cuts have affected court operations across the spectrum. There are fewer court clerks to process new civil and bankruptcy cases, slowing the intake procedure and propagating delays throughout the litigation process. There are fewer probation and pretrial services officers to protect the public from defendants awaiting trial and from offenders following their incarceration and release into the community. There are fewer public defenders available to vindicate the Constitution’s guarantee of counsel to indigent criminal defendants, which leads to postponed trials and
delayed justice for the innocent and guilty alike. There is less funding for security guards at federal courthouses, placing judges, court personnel, and the public at greater risk of harm.

Politico has more here.