The Chief Judge of the Southern District of Ohio was one of 87 U.S. District Court judges across the country to send a letter to Congressional leaders saying that sequestration cuts threaten the core of the judicial branch’s duty. The cautionary tale about public safety being at risk is a rare foray into public policy for independent judges.
“We really feel that the integrity of the court is threatened,” said Cincinnati-based Chief Judge Susan J. Dlott. “We will not be able to conduct business the way we should, the way we’re constitutionally mandated to do.”
The letter details part of the impact the sequestration’s $350 million cut has and will have on the federal court system.
“As the boots on the ground in our nation’s federal trial courts, we have experienced firsthand the effect of those constraints and funding reductions,” the August letter said. “They have forced us to slash our operations to the bone, and we believe that our constitutional duties, public safety and the quality of the justice system will be profoundly compromised by any further cuts.”
The letter was sent to Congressional leaders including Vice President Joseph Biden, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
The judges make the argument that the judiciary — the third branch of the U.S. government — already is a bargain at .2 percent of the federal budget. Ohio Southern District Clerk of Court John Hehman said that two-thirds of the courts’ appropriation are fixed costs, so a 20-percent budget reduction has to come from personnel.
“About 15 percent of our workforce is having to be reduced so we can stay within the budget parameters that are necessary for next year,” Hehman said. “In any organization, that’s a big and dramatic thing.”
The letter states:
- Clerks of court, probation and pretrial services offices will downsize by as many as 1,000 staff during fiscal year 2013.
- Staffing in those same offices has been reduced by nearly 2,1000 staff between July 2011 and July 2013, the lowest since 1999.
- Courts have incurred 4,500 furlough days as of June 2013, slowing civil and bankruptcy cases.
- The number of convicted offenders under the supervision of federal probation officers hit a record 187,311 in 2012 and is on pace to top 191,000 by 2014, while staffing is down in that office by 7 percent.
- Cuts have been made affecting the monitoring of criminal defendants, courthouse security and law enforcement allotments that fund drug, mental health and sex offender treatment, testing and treatment for offenders, GPS monitoring and defender services.
Greg Lawson, a policy analyst at Buckeye Institute, said legislators haven’t taken on the huge budgets of what he called entitlement/mandatory spending categories like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, so some other percentage cuts are political “cop-outs” that don’t really help end the federal deficit.
“I’m not going to say that the court system doesn’t have areas where they could cut,” Lawson said. “But it would make sense for the cuts to be calibrated better than they were with this strict, across-the-board type operation of the sequester… . The truth probably is that the cut is overly draconian but not that there shouldn’t be any cut at all.”
Dlott said any cost savings may be wiped out by the ripple effect of slower operations:
“If you put off criminal trials, all you do is you keep the people — if they’re not out on bond — you’re spending more money keeping them in jail before you can try them and you’re violating their civil rights,” she said.
In Ohio’s Southern District Courts in Dayton, Cincinnati and Columbus, the staff has been reduced from 80 to 67 — five from early retirements and eight layoffs.
Hehman said any such letter to Congress is precedent-setting.
“It’s fair to say that chief judges are highly independent, and averse to public lobbying,” Hehman said. “Nothing like this has happened in decades, if ever, so beyond the letter’s content, the very fact that this type of letter has been drafted and so widely signed underscores the urgency being felt within the judiciary.”