U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Roberts used his year-end report on the federal judiciary to remind Congress about the financial belt-tightening going on in the courts, saying they have been strained by across-the-board spending cuts and flat budgeting in recent years.
Mr. Roberts wrote that in 2004, the Judiciary adopted self-imposed cost-cutting measures to contain rent payments and curtail new construction, and a policy to control personnel costs by updating staffing formulas and eliminating unnecessary positions.
"We do not consider ourselves immune from the fiscal constraints that affect every department of government," he wrote. "But, as I have pointed out previously, the independent Judicial Branch consumes only the tiniest sliver of federal revenues, just two-tenths of one percent of the federal government's total outlays."
The across-the-board sequester cuts chopped Judiciary funding by almost $350 million in fiscal 2013, he wrote, and, unlike other parts of the government, the courts don't have discretionary programs that can be eliminated in response to budget cuts.
The combined effect of sequestration and flat budgets have reduced on-board staffing levels by 3,100 (14 percent) to about 19,000 employees — the lowest level since 1997, he wrote.
Sequestration — the across-the-board federal spending cuts borne out of the Budget Control Act of 2011 — has affected a wide swath of judicial functions, reducing the number of employees that range from court clerks to probation and pretrial officers to public defenders, he wrote.
Mr. Roberts did note that Congress restored a portion of the funding when it passed a temporary spending bill in October, and that the recent budget act for fiscal 2014 and 2015 provides an opportunity for relief.
The Judicial Conference requested an appropriation of $7.04 billion for fiscal 2014 — $120 million less than the amount approved by Senate Appropriations Committee in its spending bill and $13 million more than House Appropriations passed in its bill. Congress has set a target date of Jan. 15 to complete the appropriations process for fiscal 2014.
"In the coming weeks, and into the future, I encourage the President and Congress to be attentive to the needs of the Judicial Branch and avert the adverse consequences that would result from funding the Judiciary below its minimal needs," Mr. Roberts wrote. "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."
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, said that a return to regular order in Congress's appropriations process will hopefully ensure the courts have the resources they need.
"These cuts have a real impact for Americans seeking justice, and pose real threats to the dedicated public servants who work in our nation's Federal courts as well as to members of the public," he said.
Mr. Roberts also said in the report that there is less funding for security guards at federal courthouses, "placing judges, court personnel, and the public at greater risk of harm."
Mr. Leahy pointed out that last month, Congress passed an extension of the Supreme Court Police's authority to protect justices, staff and official guests when they're away from the high court grounds.
"Our courts must have the resources they need not just to process litigation, but to protect those seeking justice," he said.
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