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New budget gives some relief to federal court system

January 16, 2014 by Scott Bomboy


As Congress is poised to vote on and approve a $1.1 trillion budget deal, there now appears to be some relief from congressional Republicans and Democrats for the federal court system.

roberts640-410x300Last month, the Chief Justice of the United States, John G. Roberts Jr., warned of problems if the federal court system was only funded at sequester levels.

But the Blog of the Legal Times said on Tuesday that funding for the Judiciary in fiscal year 2014 will be close to requested levels. The new funding will restore services cut in the program that provides public defenders in federal cases.

According to documents supplied to Congress by the Judicial Conference of the United States, the federal court system requested $7.042 billion for fiscal year 2014, instead of a prior request of $7.221 billion.

In a press release from the Senate appropriations committee, the Judiciary will get close to $7 billion funding next year, including an increase of $316.4 in discretionary spending.

“Since July 2011, the courts have been forced to downsize by nearly 2,100 employees due to budget constraints, a 10 percent loss of staff,” the committee said. “This funding level is based upon the latest estimates of the Judiciary’s needs and ensures that staffing and resources will be available for court offices, probation, and pretrial services offices. It restores severe cuts to Federal Defender offices and ensures that they are adequately staffed.”

By its reckoning, the Judiciary spent $6.7 billion in fiscal year 2013 after the sequester kicked in.

The Blog of the Legal Times reported that Karen Redmond, a spokeswoman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, said that judiciary is "pleased" with the funding, which is at the level the courts sought in December.

Last month, Chief Justice Roberts warned about the effects of potential budget cuts on federal courts.

“It takes no imagination to see that failing to meet the Judiciary’s essential requirements undermines the public’s confidence in all three branches of government,” Roberts said.

Justice Roberts’ warnings came about three weeks after similar requests from two top officials at the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

On December 5, 2013, Judges John D. Bates and Julia S. Gibbons wrote Congress about the dire need for more funds for a federal court system that was strained before mandated sequester cuts took effect after the 2013 budget battle in Congress.

Roberts also said in December that cuts to a program that provides public defenders to the accused in federal cases would cause increased delays in criminal trials. About 90 percent of people in federal criminal cases use court-appointed counsel.

Judiciary officials argued that the cuts have been a real threat to the sanctity of the Sixth Amendment.

“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,” Roberts said last month.

The public defender system has greatly expanded in the past 50 years after the 1963 decision in Gideon v. Wainwright. The highly publicized case led the Supreme Court to conclude that the Constitution required state-provided legal counsel in criminal cases for defendants who are unable to afford to pay their own attorneys.

The Court ruled that the Constitution’s Sixth Amendment gives defendants the right to counsel in criminal trials where the defendant is charged with a serious offense even if they cannot afford one themselves; it states that “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to … have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.”

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