By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Supreme Court justices on Thursday sounded the alarm about the impact of compulsory budget cuts on court operations nationwide.
Testifying before the Congress about the Supreme Court's budget, Justices Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer cautioned that long-term cuts could affect both court services and the speedy resolution of civil and criminal cases.
The judicial branch is one of the government entities affected by the budget standoff between President Barack Obama and Congress, which led to a series of automatic spending cuts, known as sequestration, taking effect on March 1.
Although the justices were testifying before a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee only about the high court's budget, which is handled separately to that of the judiciary as a whole, many of the questions from lawmakers concerned the wider budget issue.
If the cuts imposed by Congress remain in place, funding for federal courts this year will drop to about $6.6 billion, down around $350 million or 5 percent from fiscal year 2012, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, the national management body for the judiciary.
The spending cuts in the federal courts could lead to up to 2,000 employees being laid off, or the introduction of a furlough program that would lead to a 10 percent pay cut for those affected, the administrative office said.
Kennedy stressed that the judiciary budget includes money for supervision of criminal offenders, such as drug testing and mental health services. "This is absolutely urgent for the safety of society," he said.
Delays in bankruptcy proceedings or civil disputes could also have an impact on the economy, he said.
"Yes, trials would be delayed. Yes, bankruptcies will be delayed," he said in describing how long-term cuts could affect the judiciary.
Kennedy said cuts to federal public defender funding could end up not saving money, because judges are constitutionally bound to appoint lawyers to defend the accused.
If there are no public defenders available, private lawyers would have to be paid to do the job, he said.
Seizing on that theme, Breyer highlighted the importance of having competent counsel representing defendants. If mistakes are made at the trial level, many thousands of taxpayer dollars can be spent on post-conviction litigation, he said.
It could end up costing more in that case than it would to ensure the defendant had "a decent lawyer in the first place," Breyer said.
The Supreme Court itself has asked for almost $86.5 million for the next fiscal year, which would be an increase of almost $3 million over its current funding. The bulk of the additional spending would be on maintenance of the high court building and grounds, parts of which are in the midst of being refurbished.
Congress is still considering the latest budget requests from the court and the judiciary.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Howard Goller and Todd Eastham)