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Federal Budget Cuts and Its Impact on the Court System

by Jacklyn Fetbroyt and Michael Chiumento, Clerk

The “sequester” of 2013 has been a hot button topic in economic and political circles alike as the country braced for and is still in the process of coping with large scale federal spending cuts. Opposing sides of the political spectrum fought back and forth for months over various provisions of the Budget Control Act of 2011.

The Sequester

The “sequester” of 2013 has been a hot button topic in economic and political circles alike as the country braced for and is still in the process of coping with large scale federal spending cuts. Opposing sides of the political spectrum fought back and forth for months over various provisions of the Budget Control Act of 2011 (the original goal of which was to decrease government spending by an estimated $1.1 trillion between 2013 and 2021), debating whether a recovering American economy would be able to withstand such striking cuts.

Impact on the Courts

While various funded parts of the federal government no doubt will be impacted by the federal budget cuts, the court system appears to be suffering from the cuts:  Vast changes have been and will be occurring such as, among others, layoffs, a decrease in working hours, a shift in the usage of attorneys, and a decrease in pay for public law officials.  The estimated overall cut to the federal court budget falls at about 8%, a massive decrease to instill in one fell swoop that has left many in a panic as they adjust to the new reality of the situation.  One public defendant attorney from Texas, Jason Hawkins, described the cuts as “devastating” to the justice system as courts will be forced to utilize less labor on shorter hours, slowing the pace in which cases can be heard.

Some experts believe that the cuts will require the layoff of 5,400 court personnel, on the heels of 1,100 similar layoffs in 2012.  Losing roughly 6,500 court employees represents almost a quarter of the entire federal court workforce, a monumental number to overcome in order to attempt to retain some expected normalcy in daily operations.  Other commentators worry that some areas of the country may need to look into closing their offices one or two extra days a week in order to operate at full business hours on other days.  A lurking danger not receiving as much coverage is the possibility of some suspended civil jury trials due to a lack of funding to pay jurors; in the criminal arena, it is feared that this would increase the time of an accused’s detention (or probation), creating a double edged sword of both increased spending to detain defendants and slower resolution of those defendants’ cases.

The overarching concern related to the cuts remains that cutting such a large amount from an area such as the court system does nothing to actually reduce the deficit as cases will simply take longer to resolve, thereby failing to actually decrease how much is spent in dealing with them.  The process fails to actually save money and instead simply elongates the judicial process with less accuracy, efficiency, and effectiveness.

Despite all the negativity surrounding the ongoing budget cuts, there is room for optimism for some districts and many point to the structure of the federal court system as a strength in dealing with reduced spending.  Unlike many federal departments, the courts are decentralized so that planning, management, and resource allocation occurs on a local level.  In fact, some districts preemptively revised their practices and operations to reduce the impact of the budgetary cuts.

Conclusion

It would seem that the general consensus regarding the sequester and its accompanying cuts is that they will prove to be an extreme detriment to the efficiency and quality of the federal court system.  Potential clients may struggle with different standards than they have grown accustomed to in the past when dealing with the court.  Potential layoffs, time restraints, and decreases in other areas could cause growing headaches across the board as the system adjusts to different, and according to most, slower and worse conditions in the court room.  While many areas of the government have been hit hard already and will continue to feel the cuts, the federal courts will no doubt be in a time of change in how they operate.  The impact on inpidual cases and litigants will need to be dealt with on a case by case basis with the litigants, their counsel, and court personnel working together to overcome this new potential litigation hurdle.

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