On Thursday, the Federal Bar Council, an organization of attorneys who practice before federal courts in New York, Connecticut, and Vermont, sent a letter to President Obama and members of Congress expressing concern about the impact of sequestration on federal courts and, in particular, the Second Circuit.
In the letter, the council’s president, Robert J. Anello, outlined the ways that sequestration is impacting the criminal justice system. The Federal Defenders’ office of New York has had its budget reduced by 20 percent, which has led it to furlough each employee, including its attorneys, for approximately 20 days at some point between March and September. That will reduce service by about 15 percent. Attorneys don’t have the funds to retain expert witnesses or travel to visit clients. If an additional 14 percent reduction goes into effect next year, it will have to lay off attorneys.
But the cuts will end up costing more money in the long run. “Because free representation for indigent criminal defendants is mandated by the Constitution,” the letter says, “all indigent defendants who are not represented by the Federal Defenders must be represented — at federal expense — by attorneys in private practice,” who cost more.
The cuts have had other impacts. Courthouses haven’t been able to make needed security upgrades. Cuts to probation departments could have “disturbing implications for public safety.” Courthouses have also been unable to pay for basic maintenance and some are running out of space. Bankruptcy courts for the Southern and Eastern Districts of New York have reduced non-judge staff by 40 percent over the past two years, which leads to “disruptions and delays in those courts’ essential services.”
The letters says the impact has been particularly egregious in the Second Circuit given that New York City handles so many financial and immigration cases. It therefore has “a high concentration of complex and high-profile cases.” Yet sequestration has affected all federal courts, which are likely to be dealing with similar challenges.
And cuts are impacting the system all the way at the top. The letter comes on the heels of a report by ProPublica that the Department of Justice is dealing with a sequestration-imposed hiring freeze by hiring unpaid attorneys. As Christie Thompson writes, “There are currently 96 unpaid special assistant U.S. attorneys working for the department.” It is looking to bring on 13 more unpaid attorneys. Sequestration cut $1.6 billion from the department’s budget, and a spokesperson told Thompson that the hires help it “address the staffing challenges imposed by sequestration.”
The cuts to the court system come on top of a long history of underfunding. A report from the American Bar Association in 2011 said that “[t]he failure of state and local legislatures to provide adequate funding is effectively — at times quite literally — closing the doors of our justice system.” The funding shortfalls had already led to hiring freezes, pay cuts, furloughs, layoffs, increased filing fees, and even closures. As of the report, 14 state court systems had to shorten hours or the number of days they were open, 22 offset the cuts by increasing fees and fines, and 14 states laid off staff entirely.
Cuts to the justice system generally cost more than they save. The costs of court-related delays in foreclosure cases in Florida were estimated to come to nearly $10 billion. Not to mention the increased demand to resolve such cases as foreclosures continue to plague the housing market.
The troubles in the justice system are just one of many important programs that are being slashed by sequestration. Yet even in the face of these negative consequences, many Republican lawmakers have expressed their support for the automatic package of cuts.