Fair Courts E-lert: Budget Cuts Continue to Impact Courts

March 28, 2013

Budget Cuts Continue to Impact Courts
State and federal budget cuts are hurting courts across the country. According to an article from the Associated Press, Alabama’s Chief Justice Roy Moore is concerned “that the financial situation [in the courts] has become dire. He says there are 498 less court employees now than in 2001, and another 300 may lose their jobs under budget proposals being considered by the Legislature.” Moore reportedly added, “[H]e believes extra money could be found by prioritizing spending. The chief justice says he’s opposed to raising taxes or expanding gambling to find more money for courts.” Massachusetts court leaders are also pushing for increased funding, including to raise salaries that have been frozen for seven years. An article in The Republican quotes the Governor’s Councilor Michael Albano as saying, “The judicial branch is a coequal branch of government… Those on the executive side have received pay increases since 2006. Those on the legislative side have been granted a pay increase. Those in the judiciary have not.” The article continues, “Because of budget cuts, the number of staff at the Trial Court has plummeted by 1,364 employees from 7,629 employees on July 1, 2007 to 6,265 on Feb. 5, down 18 percent…”

The federal sequester is also having an impact on federal courts. According to the Minnesota Lawyer, “The budget sequester, which began March 1 after Congress and White House officials failed to reach a deficit reduction deal under the Budget Control Act, will force $85 billion worth of cuts in 2013 absent congressional action. About $350 million of those cuts will affect the federal judicial system.” In Minnesota, one of the areas that will be hit by cuts is indigent defense. According to the Chief Federal Public Defender for the District of Minnesota, “A significant number of public defender offices will have to furlough their entire staff for 20 to 35 days… Those furloughs will have to happen soon, before the end of the fiscal year. One office is looking at a 60-day furlough… [She] pointed out that there is only one defender office in the state, in Minneapolis, and that money for travel is jeopardized. The conflict lawyers will share the pain and will have to work for free for a while if they want to continue to be appointed…”
Sources: Ala. Chief Justice: 300 Court Layoffs Possible, Associated Press via The Mountian Advertiser, March 18, 2013; Dan Ring, Massachusetts Court Leaders Urge 5 Percent Budget Increase, Pay Raise For Judges, The Republican, March 19, 2013;  Kimberly Atkins And Barbara Jones, Courts Brace For Sequester Fallout, Minnesota Lawyer, March 22, 2013.

North Carolina Budget Excludes Publicly Financed Elections
North Carolina’s governor has submitted a budget plan that eliminates funding for publicly financed elections for both appellate court and state Supreme Court races. According to WRAL, “First, it would end publicly funded campaign finance programs for appellate court and state Supreme Court races. [Governor] McCrory anticipates eliminating those programs entirely, returning any leftover money to other government uses. That would save the state $4.1 million in the next fiscal year.  He also repeals the political parties financing fund. That money is provided when taxpayers check a box at the top of their tax returns that they would like money to go to support the Republican or Democratic party. That would save the state roughly $1.1 million in the coming fiscal year.”
Source: Mark Binker, Mccrory's Budget: No More Money For Politics, WRAL, March 20, 2013.


Nominations Stalemate Continues, Editorial Blames Both Sides
President Obama withdrew an appeals court nominee after two successful filibusters prevented a vote on Caitlin Halligan for the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. According to the Associated Press, “Senate Republicans blocked Halligan’s confirmation for a second time in early March, arguing that Halligan is too liberal and citing her work on lawsuits against gun manufacturers and on behalf of illegal immigrants. The National Rifle Association also staunchly opposed her confirmation.” The article quotes a statement by President Obama that “I am deeply disappointed that even after nearly two and a half years, a minority of senators continued to block a simple up-or-down vote on her nomination.” The failure to confirm Halligan, as well as the slow process for most of President Obama’s nominees, has drawn harsh criticism in the last few months. The Los Angeles Times featured an editorial blaming both parties in Congress for the failure to confirm more nominees. “This sort of gamesmanship is outrageous regardless of which party is engaging in it. Senators are free to oppose judicial nominees on any grounds they choose. But the Constitution's command that the Senate give its ‘advice and consent' on judicial nominations is thwarted when a minority of senators prevents a floor vote. This page supported Republicans when they threatened to abolish filibusters of judicial nominations in 2005, and we were disappointed that Senate Democrats this year agreed to only minimal changes in the filibuster. Halligan is paying the price for that timidity, and so are the federal courts.”
Sources: Obama Withdraws Appeals Court Pick Caitlin Halligan After Republicans Block Her Confirmation, Associated Press via Washington Post, March 22, 2013; Editorial, Senate Filibustering Amounts To Contempt Of The Courts, Los Angeles Times, March  22, 2013.


New Jersey Fears Political Battle Over Judiciary May Undermine Credibility
New Jersey’s failure to confirm nominees to the state’s high court has caused many to be concerned over the state of the judiciary. According to NewJersey.com, “When the authors of the 1947 New Jersey Constitution decreed that judges be appointed by the governor ‘with the advice and consent of the Senate,’ they doubtless never foresaw a time when the Senate would see fit to delay action on such appointments for long periods. But that’s what’s been happening lately. Among other consequences, it has left the state Supreme Court, the capstone of a judicial system that once was considered a model for the states, weakened for most of Gov. Chris Christie’s three-plus years in office.” According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, “The New Jersey Supreme Court, once viewed as a bastion of independent, if liberal, jurisprudence, risks a sharply diminished reputation if political battles over filling its empty seats are not quickly resolved, legal experts and court-reform advocates say.” NewJersey.com goes on to add, “For decades, the Senate has lived by an unwritten rule called ‘senatorial courtesy,’ under which a single senator from a nominee’s home county can kill an appointment. If the senator refuses to sign off on the nomination – no reason need be given – it’s stopped in its tracks. There can be no hearing, no committee action, no requirement that senators go on record. Because the practice is unofficial and not a part of the constitution, the Senate rules or the law, the courts say it’s beyond their power to abolish.”
Sources: George Amick, N.J. Supreme Court Has Been Weakened By Vacancies From Partisan Stalemate, NewJersey.com, March 18, 2013; Chris Mondicks, Standoffs Over New Jersey Judicial Nominations Could Sully Court's Reputation, Philadelphia Inquirer, March 25, 2013.