WASHINGTON (AP) — Congress and the White House need to restore funding to the nation's federal courts to keep from undermining "the public's confidence in all three branches of government," Chief Justice John Roberts said Tuesday in his year-end report.
Roberts has made similar calls for more money in the past. "I would like to choose a fresher topic, but duty calls. The budget remains the single most important issue facing the courts," he said.
The courts have been severely impacted by government cost-cutting, Roberts said.
"The combined effects since July 2011 of flat budgets followed by sequestration reduced on-board court staffing levels by 3,100 (14 percent) to about 19,000 employees — the lowest staffing level since 1997, despite significant workload increases over that same period — and reduced federal defender offices staffing by 11 percent in fiscal year 2013 alone," he said.
What would happen if the sequestration cuts continue? If Congress instead freezes court funding at sequester level, it "would lead to the loss of an estimated additional 1,000 court staff," Roberts said. "The first consequence would be greater delays in resolving civil and criminal cases. In the civil and bankruptcy venues, further consequences would include commercial uncertainty, lost opportunities and unvindicated rights. In the criminal venues, those consequences pose a genuine threat to public safety."
Court officials are calling for $7.04 billion for fiscal year 2014, which they calculate at less than two-tenths of 1 percent of total federal outlays.
"In the coming weeks, and into the future, I encourage the president and Congress to be attentive to the needs of the judicial branch and avert the adverse consequences that would result from funding the judiciary below its minimal needs," Roberts said. "The judiciary continues to depend on the vision and statesmanship of our colleagues in the executive and legislative departments. It takes no imagination to see that failing to meet the judiciary's essential requirements undermines the public's confidence in all three branches of government."
The judiciary system also is working to save money by ensuring any new space requested by a judicial circuit is offset by an equivalent reduction in the same fiscal year. The courts also are looking to reduce their overall space by 3 percent by the end of fiscal 2018. "The only exceptions from these policies are new courthouses and repair and alterations projects specifically approved by Congress," Roberts said.