Letter From The President Of The New York County Lawyers’ Association

2013-09-20 11:14

To The Readers of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel:

Over the last several months, NYCLA’s Task Force on Judicial Budget Cuts has been working diligently to determine the impact of recent budget cuts on the federal courts in New York. After an extensive investigation, the Task Force published its report, “Continuing Effect of Judicial Budget Cuts on the U.S. District Courts for the Southern and Eastern Districts of New York,” concluding that recent budget cuts, followed by sequestration, have resulted in reduced access to justice and decreased public safety. Without prompt budget relief, the rule of law will be jeopardized.

Two years ago, when NYCLA first examined the effect of budget cuts on the federal courts, the Task Force voiced concern. Since then, thanks to sequestration, the judicial budget has been slashed even further, and the situation has become increasingly perilous. Through interviews with judges and court personnel, and a thorough canvassing of reports and other resources, the Task Force concluded that our federal courts are now on the brink of crisis.

The Task Force report highlights both the extent of the recent cuts and their draconian effects. For example:

  • Public safety in the Southern District of New York (SDNY) and Eastern District of New York (EDNY) has been compromised due to staff reductions in the Probation Department, which supervises criminal offenders after conviction, and the Pretrial Services Office, which is responsible for defendants awaiting trial. Fewer officers are responsible for more cases, have less time to spend on presentence reports, and are unable to monitor criminal offenders and defendants as closely as in the past.
  • Security at the courthouses in the Southern and Eastern Districts has also suffered. Court security officers are being required to work reduced hours, creating security vulnerabilities throughout the system. Together with the elimination of security systems and equipment, this deficit creates a substantial risk to the safety and security of judges, employees, jurors, and litigants. Nor is this a hypothetical risk. The SDNY and EDNY face security and terrorism concerns that are unique among federal district courts. Thus far in 2013, there have been 42 threats made to EDNY judges and court officials, including a plot to assassinate a United States District Judge.
  • Due to the loss of manpower in the Clerk’s Office and elsewhere, the SDNY and EDNY may be forced to curtail their hours of operation, delay civil trials, and possibly even close for entire days at a time, while imposing unpaid furloughs upon courthouse staff. Meanwhile, both the SDNY and the EDNY have postponed replacing obsolete equipment and put off other technology upgrades and infrastructure repair. Although these measures save some costs in the short term, they will ultimately result in additional delays and more expensive repair efforts.
  • Alternatives to incarceration, such as alcohol, drug and mental health treatment, have been cut dramatically, increasing the risk of recidivism. In the SDNY, substance abuse treatment services have been cut by 43 percent and mental health services by 7 percent.
  • The Federal Defenders, critical to the defense of indigent criminal defendants, were especially hard hit by sequestration, resulting in staff furloughs, delays in criminal proceedings and the inability to accept all eligible cases. As a result, cases that could and should be handled efficiently by the Federal Defender have been shifted to private attorneys through the Criminal Justice Act Panel, which is ultimately more costly to the taxpayers.

Funding constraints have caused a staffing crisis at the SDNY’s Bankruptcy Court, which is among the most active such courts in the country. The SDNY draws all types of bankruptcy filings from around the world, including well‐recognized mega cases. Moreover, the same economic trends that are used to justify the budget cuts have resulted in substantial increases in bankruptcy filings, further exacerbating the problem.

NYCLA urges Congress, at a minimum, to enact what is now S. 1371, which would provide the judiciary with a $496 million increase in funding for FY 2014 – roughly seven percent more than the funding received by the courts in FY 2013 and enough to restore what was lost to sequestration. Absent adequate funding, the courts cannot effectively and efficiently adjudicate the cases that come before them, nor can the Federal Defenders provide the representation that the Sixth Amendment demands.

The federal judiciary is not merely another federal agency. Although it costs less than 0.2 percent of the federal budget – 20 cents out of every $100 – the judiciary is a separate and co-equal branch of our government with a mandatory constitutional role in our democracy. It should not be a pawn in partisan games, nor a victim of Congressional gridlock. NYCLA urges voters and elected officials alike to recognize the critical role of the federal court system in all of our lives – whether or not we are litigants – and support the modest funding it needs to function effectively.

The Report and these findings would not have been possible without Task Force on Judicial Budget Cuts co-chairs, Michael Miller and Hon. Stephen Crane, and the hard work of Task Force members Vince Chang and Michael McNamara. We thank you for your dedication to bringing further awareness to this important issue.

As always, NYCLA’s leadership welcomes input on all of the issues important to this Association, including budget cuts. Feel free to tweet me @nyclapres or send me an email at bmoses@maglaw.com.

Sincerely,

Barbara Moses