Federal budget cuts alarm Idaho judges

More sequestration cuts may require closing courthouses on some days and slowdowns in civil litigation.

dpopkey@idahostatesman.comAugust 21, 2013 


    Æ Since fiscal 2012, federal court staffing in the District of Idaho has been cut 30 percent, from 56 to 39 positions. If sequestration continues in fiscal 2014 — beginning in October — the Clerk’s Office budget will drop by 36 percent to $3.2 million, down from $5 million.

    The Idaho courts also plan 13 days of unpaid furloughs and shifting 70 percent of the information technology budget to avoid laying off another eight employees.

    Æ Idaho’s Federal Defender Services cut spending 14 percent in February, with attrition and seven days of mandatory furlough in fiscal 2013. If sequestration continues, the office will be cut another 29 percent, from an original fiscal 2013 budget of $5.1 million to $3.6 million for fiscal 2014.

    With personnel and rent accounting for 90 percent of its budget, 43 days of furloughs or “massive layoffs” would be necessary, write the judges. That would mean appointing more private attorneys, costing taxpayers more, the judges write.

    Æ In Probation and Pretrial Services, the impact is more slight. Annual cuts averaged between 8 percent and 13 percent between fiscal 2011 and fiscal 2013. Staffing is at 65 percent of the level called for in a federal formula, and staff would face at least four furlough days in fiscal 2014.

Budget cuts threaten the judiciary’s ability to “continue to even function as a court and an independent branch of government,” Idaho’s two top federal judges warn.

Chief U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill and Chief Bankruptcy Judge Terry Myers say the federal courts in Idaho are “facing a financial crisis which is unparalleled in our 150-year history” because of slowed spending and across-the-board sequestration cuts that began March 1.

In a Thursday letter to Idaho’s all-Republican delegation, Winmill and Myers say the “crisis” applies to district and bankruptcy courts, probation and pretrial supervision and federal defender services.

They ask for a meeting, and Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch and Reps. Mike Simpson and Raul Labrador said Tuesday they plan to meet with the judges.

“I think they’re right,” said Simpson, who chairs an Appropriations Committee subcommittee.

Todd Winer, a spokesman for Labrador, said his boss wants an explanation of why the cuts are so much higher than the annual 1 percent reductions in discretionary spending called for in the Budget Control Act.

Winmill told the Statesman he’s gratified the delegation will hear him out. “We are absolutely devastated,” he said. “I just don’t know how we’re going to continue to function if something doesn’t change.”

Further cuts will expand furloughs. Winmill’s current plan is to close the three federal courthouses every other Friday, beginning in April 2014. He said a moratorium on civil trials is also possible, meaning significant delays, as criminal matters take precedence.

Supervision of offenders on probation and defendants released pending trial also will suffer, Winmill said, raising public safety concerns.

Finally, legal services provided by government lawyers representing indigent clients will be reduced. But because representation is a legal right, private attorneys will be appointed at higher cost to the taxpayer, the judges said.

Winmill and Myers say financial conditions in Idaho’s federal courts are “even more dire” than the situation nationally.

Idaho has long had two district judges — the other is Judge Ed Lodge — though the jurisdiction’s caseload and population justify a third, say Winmill and Myers. Efforts by Idaho lawmakers to add a judge have stalled in Congress.

Idaho also has no senior judges, a rarity that costs the district money. And the funding formula does not account for far-flung geography that puts offices in Boise, Coeur d’Alene and Pocatello.

Idaho is one of only four districts that consolidates district and bankruptcy courts. In 2012, Idaho ranked as the sixth-most productive court among the 94 districts. “In short, we have always operated a very lean organization,” write Winmill and Myers.

Winmill is one of 87 chief federal judges — out of 94 nationwide — who signed an Aug. 13 letter to congressional leaders asking for an increase in funding for the judicial branch regardless of whether Congress agrees on a 2014 budget.

They suggest a 7 percent increase, or $496 million, a figure approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee. The House Appropriations Committee voted for a 5 percent increase, or $363 million.

The 87 chief judges write that the courts have been forced to “slash our operations to the bone, and we believe our constitutional duties, public safety, and the quality of the justice system will be profoundly compromised by further cuts.”

Dan Popkey: 377-6438, Twitter: @IDS_politics

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