Major Terror Trial May Be Delayed Several Months, And Other Sequestration Impacts That Weaken Our Justice System

In major trials scheduled to go before federal judges, public defenders are abruptly being furloughed, in some cases replaced by court-appointed lawyers who will have to familiarize themselves with highly complex cases. This week, the judge overseeing the trial of Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law Abu Ghaith, said the five-and-a-half-week furlough of the lawyer representing Ghaith might force him to push the trial back from September 2013 to January 2014. Judge Lewis A. Kaplan was appalled by that possibility, saying:

It’s extremely troublesome to contemplate the possibility of a case of this nature being delayed because of sequestration. Let me say only that — stunning.

All federal public defenders in New York are taking mandatory five-and-a-half week furloughs until the end of September, but many are being replaced with court-appointed lawyers who may end up costing the public more than the defenders, given their lack of familiarity with caseloads. ThinkProgress previously reported that public defenders, many already stretched too thin to adequately manage overwhelming caseloads, would be hit six times harder than prosecutors by the sequester, meaning that prosecutors can keep bringing cases that public defenders will be even more strained to defend. Now, the impacts are starting to manifest themselves in even more extreme ways than predicted, as mandatory furloughs and budget cuts approach. Other offices facing mandatory cuts are resorting to extreme measures to cut expenditures in a system whose primary expenses are salary and necessary investigatory procedures. In a southern Ohio office, director Steve Nolder fired himself after cutting every other corner he could find. Other federal defender offices will see once-a-week furloughs, as courthouses cut one day a week of criminal hearings. These furloughs and closures mean more than justice delayed. They also mean public defenders have even less time to devote to any client, and that defendants being held in pretrial detention are left waiting in jail (at significant public expense). All of this creates arguably unconstitutional conditions that violate defendants’ Sixth Amendment right to counsel. The landmark case establishing that right, Gideon v. Wainright, celebrated its 50th anniversary just last month.

The cuts are exacerbated by a vacancy crisis on the federal courts, due in large part to Senate obstruction of Obama’s judicial nominees. Even before the sequester, some federal judges reported having to resort to “assembly-line fashion,” sentencing, meaning “you  herd everybody into the courtroom and you start sentencing just running down the row.” Meanwhile, the explosion of the federal criminal docket has resulted in a 790 percent spike in the federal prison population since 1980.