Budget cuts cause delays, concern in federal court

AP News
Posted: Apr 25, 2013 4:22 PM

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) — Federal budget cuts have caused delays in at least one terror-related court case in New York and prompted a federal judge in Nebraska to say he is "seriously contemplating" dismissing some criminal cases.

The automatic cuts are also causing concerns about funding for the defense of the Boston Marathon bombing suspect, who is being represented by a public defender's office that's facing three weeks of unpaid furloughs and whose defense costs could run into millions of dollars.

Federal defenders' offices have been hit especially hard by the cuts, which amount to about 10 percent of their budgets for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30. Some offices have laid off staffers. The head public defender in Southern Ohio even laid himself off as a way to save money.

Much of the reductions are due to automatic cuts known as the sequester, and public defenders warn they could face even more cuts next year.

Members of the Federal Bar Association, including federal lawyers and judges, were on Capitol Hill on Thursday, meeting with members of the House and Senate and their staffers and appealing to them for adequate funding, said Geoff Cheshire, an assistant federal public defender from Arizona, who was among them.

"The federal defenders are the front bumper of this fiscal crunch, getting hit first and hardest. But behind it is the third branch of government as a whole. The message is, this is having real effects on the federal courts and the rule of law," Cheshire said.

He and others are pushing for Congress to make an emergency appropriation for the judiciary that would mitigate some of the cuts to defenders and the court system. Cheshire said $61 million would be enough to eliminate the furloughs.

In New York, furloughs have caused delays in the case of Osama bin Laden's son-in-law, charged with conspiring to kill Americans in his role as al-Qaida's chief spokesman. A public defender told U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan this month that furloughs in his office were making it impossible to prepare for trial quickly, prompting the judge to say he found it "extremely troublesome" and "stunning" that sequestration was interfering with the case.

But it's not just the public defenders who are being affected. Federal courthouses around the country are starting to close their doors to the public as ways to deal with the sequester.

In the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of California, courtrooms and court clerks' offices will be shuttered in San Francisco, San Jose and Eureka on the first Friday of each month and in Oakland on the first Monday of the month through the end of September. On those days, no clerks or support staff will be available to run the courtrooms so no trials will move forward.

"There will be no proceedings in any of the courtrooms in those facilities on those days I described," said Richard W. Wieking, clerk of court for the Northern District.

Other courthouses also are reducing services.

In U.S. District Court in Delaware, only emergency criminal procedures will be heard on Fridays as a way to help federal prosecutors, federal defenders and U.S. marshals manage their jobs with the furloughs, Clerk of Court John Cerino said. The courthouses will be open, but the courts won't be hearing "anything that's not an emergency," he said.

The Department of Justice told employees on Wednesday that despite budget cuts it would not furlough anyone, including FBI agents and prosecutors. While that's good news for prosecutors, it leaves an imbalance that affects cases, several defenders said. By law, prosecutors and defenders are supposed to be paid the same but effectively are not when some defenders have to take three weeks off, they said.

Boston federal defender Miriam Conrad is representing marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. She told The Associated Press on Wednesday that it was too early to tell what the impact of the furloughs would be on Tsarnaev's case.

Other public defenders warned of the imbalance when one side has the resources of the entire Department of Justice behind it and the other is trying to handle deep cuts that could affect its investigations, ability to pay experts, and the ability to show up in court five days a week.

"Imagine the imbalance now of having people working on the case losing two or three weeks of pay," said Michael Nachmanoff, a federal public defender in Virginia.

One month before the bombings happened, Conrad told the AP in an interview that she worried furloughs could cause delays, hurt the cause of justice, be devastating to her office and demoralize her staff. She noted at the time that the office can't require or even allow its lawyers to work on furlough days.

Meanwhile, a senior federal judge in Nebraska said he is "seriously contemplating" dismissing some criminal cases, perhaps involving immigration offenses, to cope with public defender furloughs in the state.

U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf said in a post on his Hercules and the Umpire blog that Congress is squarely to blame for the predicament.

"Congress is therefore on notice that its failure to fund the judiciary, and most particularly the Federal Public Defenders and Criminal Justice Act counsel, may result in the guilty going unpunished. If a banana republic is what members of Congress want, I may help them get it," Kopf said.

An appointee of President George H.W. Bush, Kopf took on a reduced caseload at the end of 2011. He started his blog on the role of judges in February.


Holland reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Mark Sherman in Washington contributed to this report.


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