Budget cuts threaten the judiciarys ability to continue to even function as a court and an independent branch of government, Idahos 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 Idahos 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 theyre 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 hes gratified the delegation will hear him out. We are absolutely devastated, he said. I just dont know how were going to continue to function if something doesnt change.
Further cuts will expand furloughs. Winmills 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 Idahos 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 jurisdictions 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 dAlene 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