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Crowding in the courts

Lawmakers eager to federalize crime should understand their obligation to provide adequate fundsfor the judiciary's efficient operation.

Congress has been on an anti-crime binge for years, making federal offenses out of what should be state crimes. But rather than give the federal judiciary the resources to handle the huge added workload, Congress is considering cutting its budget.

The Senate recently passed an appropriations bill cutting $280-million out of the judiciary's $4.1-billion budget request. The House bill would cut $180-million. William Rehnquist, the chief justice of the United States, has written a letter to congressional leaders expressing deep concern over Congress' move to reduce funding for the nation's court system. According to Rehnquist, the amount of funding Congress is considering "will not be adequate to fund the judiciary's needs and obligations" for the 2000 fiscal year. He points out that the budget submitted by the Judicial Conference was already bare bones. It provided for no additional court staff, a freeze on hiring that would be in place for the second year running. Yet even as the courts hold the line on staffing, case filings are increasing. In the past two years alone, the federal courts have experienced a 22 percent increase in criminal filings.

This explosion of the criminal docket is primarily due to the political posturing by lawmakers who want to look tough on crime. Rehnquist pointly told congressional leaders: "The courts do not control their workload, but rather must respond to filings created in large part by Congress' expansion of the federal courts' jurisdiction." Congressional attempts at federalizing crime has reached such irresponsible levels that in the 105th Congress more than 1,000 crime-related bills were introduced.

The result has been federal courts drowning in work. In some districts the federal courts are so overwhelmed by criminal filings that civil cases have to wait years to be heard. According to the Department of Justice, as of 1998 there were 25,621 civil cases more than three years old sitting on federal district court dockets.

Congressional leaders need a reality check. If they are going to make every street drug deal and corner-store holdup a federal offense, then they have to be prepared to pay the freight. That means full funding for the judiciary this budget cycle and hefty increases in the future.