Ceiling lights go dark after hours on federal law clerks. Federal jurors get shoved out of buildings while still deliberating. Public defenders toil for free on their furlough days.
This is the state of the federal court system in an age of austerity, according to those in charge, who predict worse days ahead if scheduled cuts are not averted.
"We're collapsing from the inside," said U.S. District Judge Elizabeth A. Kovachevich, a 76-year-old Reagan appointee who has served on the bench for 31 years, including as chief judge.
She was one of more than a dozen officials from the Middle District of Florida who spoke Wednesday by video conference to aides for U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio, seeking to remind Washington of the fragility of justice.
With a new federal fiscal year only days away, Congress hasn't passed an appropriations bill. But court officials are looking further ahead to the next round of automatic funding cuts — part of what's called the sequester — that take effect Jan. 1.
Acting U.S. Attorney A. Lee Bentley III said his office, which has already endured staff cuts, is at a breaking point. He stands to lose 20 more of his 110 prosecutors, cutting productivity in an operation that expects to bring in $350 million for the Treasury this year. His office budget is $19.5 million.
Federal Defender Donna Lee Elm said indigent defendants will keep coming even if her staff of 83 people falls to 76, as feared.
The Constitution guarantees everyone a defense. But Elm said the government's obligation has been shifted to her employees, who work for free some days and earn as little as $23 an hour when they're paid. She foresees a greater reliance on private contract lawyers who charge the government $110 an hour to help.
"This is not a cost-saving measure," she said.
U.S. Marshal William Berger said cuts will reduce his agency's ability to secure federal courthouses or participate in a fugitive task force that assists local law enforcement.
Chief Probation Officer Joseph Collins said community safety has already been compromised with the loss of experienced officers through buyouts. Mental health, sex offender and drug treatment options have been reduced, he said.
Scores of federal employees and private lawyers attended the lunchtime gathering Wednesday in Tampa, some remotely from Ocala and Fort Myers, all part of a district that stretches from Georgia to south of Naples.
No member of Congress attended. A Nelson legislative aide and the general counsels for both senators monitored the event from a conference room in Rubio's Washington, D.C., office. They listened but didn't address the audience or speakers.
Kovachevich said she had already talked to Sen. Nelson.
"He realized it was a grave situation," she said.
Asked for a statement, Dan McLaughlin, the Democratic senator's deputy chief of staff, said, "The bottom line is the sequester needs to go. You don't cut the budget with a meat cleaver. Instead, we need more targeted cuts of wasteful government spending."
He said getting rid of the forced cuts would entail getting extremists in Congress to stop blocking common-sense solutions and compromise as part of their effort to sabotage the health care law.
Brooke Sammon, Rubio's deputy press secretary, said the Republican senator "has always said that the sequester was a bad idea, in part because it does not prioritize core public safety functions. The only way to solve our long-term deficit problems is to grow our economy, which will require entitlement reform and pro-growth tax reform, not tax hikes."
Members of the House also were informed of the Middle District's budgetary concerns.
Harry Glenn, spokesman for U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores, said the Middle District judges did a good job of providing representatives with packets of information detailing the impact of cuts.
"Their biggest concern is sequestration," he said. "Continuing sequestration would be tough on courts because they're manpower-intensive."
Patty Ryan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3382.