Cutting Justice

March 4, 2013

by E. Sebastian Arduengo

One of the more immediate effects of the so-called federal budget sequestration will be its impact on the federal judiciary.

The entire judicial branch takes up substantially less than one percent of the federal budget, but because of the sequester the judiciary is facing a funding cut of 5.3 percent,or about $323 million below the funding level of 2012. And, unlike other parts of government, much judicial spending is mandatory. The Constitution mandates that judges be paid, and the government has to make its rent payments. That means that cuts to the judiciary will fall overwhelmingly on court services and support personnel, the very people who make the court system function. Up to 4.400 staff could be laid off (over 1,000 people already have been), including law clerks who help judges manage enormous case loads, court security officers, and probation officers. Funding would also be cut for necessary security equipment. Those metal detectors at the entrance to every federal courthouse aren’t just for show – In 2010 a gunman opened fire at the Lloyd George U.S. Courthouse in Las Vegas, killing a security officer before he himself was gunned down.

Cuts would also go to the heart of the justice system’s constitutional obligations. For example, many federal courts would not be able to pay for jurors or commissioners, with the result that nearly all jury trials would be suspended. The effect of this would be profound because all criminal trials require a jury and the parties demand a jury in most civil matters.


The courts would also not be able to afford public defenders for indigent defendants, depriving them of both their constitutional right to an attorney, but also their right to a speedy trial, as matters requiring a federal public defender would also be suspended while defendants languished in detention. Perhaps to avoid the specter of non-violent offenders waiting months in jails across the country for Congress to get its act together, the Obama administration has already directed the Department of Homeland Security to release several hundred immigrants that were being held at detention centers across the country.

But the most important impact of sequestration for the courts on ordinary Americans will be that civil cases will sputter to a halt. This includes hearings on Medicare and Social Security benefits, immigration, employment, civil liberties, and everyday business disputes. Top officials in the legal community have already warned about the effects of years of budget cuts on the federal judiciary. In his year-end report to Congress, Chief Justice John Roberts said that it would become “increasingly difficult to economize further without reducing the quality of judicial services,” largely because the courts do not have programs that they can eliminate or programs that they can put off into the future. Former Congressman Norm Dicks said that the sequester would leave the courts unable to supervise thousands of people in pre-trial release programs and parole. Circuit Judge Julia Gibbons was blunter – saying that the cuts would “cripple” the federal judiciary.

At a time when it’s already hard enough for most Americans to have their day in court because of the backlog of cases caused by obstructionism in the Senate, sequestration threatens to completely paralyze the administration of justice. It’s a penny-pinching measure that Americans simply can’t afford.