The scales of federal justice are unbalanced. Sequestration, the budget-cutting tool of an intransigent, partisan Congress, has left the federal court system in turmoil and on the brink of failure to dispense justice. The coequal branch of government deserves better, as does the public that depends on the federal courts. Congress needs to find the money to fix this problem.
More than 90 percent of chief federal district judges — including those appointed by both Democratic and Republican presidents — sent an alarming letter last month to leaders of the House and Senate as well as select committees. Among the 87 signatures was that of U.S. District Judge Anne Conway, chief judge for Florida's Middle District, which includes the Tampa Bay area.
Years of flat funding had had a "devastating impact" even before the $350 million cut to the judicial branch due to the sequestration, the letter said. The courts have the lowest staffing since 1999 even as the workload has significantly grown.
The cuts have had a disproportionate impact on defendants' counsel. The federal public defender program began in 1970 to provide lawyers to those who couldn't afford one. Now 90 percent of defendants obtain a court-appointed attorney, and the public defenders represent 60 percent of those overall. The federal criminal system couldn't function without them.
Since October, federal public defender staff has been downsized by 160 people, or 6 percent. Then sequester cuts forced more than 12,500 furlough days, causing some offices to reject cases or go to four-day work weeks.
Donna Elm, the federal public defender of the Middle District of Florida, reduced staff 13 percent and scheduled remaining staff for 13 furlough days starting in March. The office has had to close every other Friday, meaning no court appearances. If Congress doesn't reinstate funding, she will face an additional 10 percent cut beginning in October. Her staff will be down by a fifth.
Contrast that with federal prosecutors, who haven't faced the same cuts or furloughs. They are paid out of a large Justice Department budget, and the attorney general as law enforcement chief has flexibility to move money around. Lawyers and other staff working for Lee Bentley, acting U.S. attorney for the Middle District, have experienced no furloughs, layoffs or pay cuts, according to spokesman William Daniels.
This imbalance will create stress in the criminal justice system and jeopardizes America's commitment to a fair judicial process unless Congress acts to restore cuts in fiscal year 2014. House Speaker John Boehner has said he intends to avert a government shutdown by passing stopgap legislation. But for the courts to continue operating in a reasonable fashion, they need more than stopgap measures. They need a restoration of the funds that have been cut.