Sequestration Threatens American Justice

The federal court system would be devastated by budget cuts, argue two senior court justices.

The American Bar Association recently ruled that it won’t consider accrediting foreign law schools.
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The Honorable Charles N. Clevert is senior U.S. District judge for the Eastern District of Wisconsin and the Honorable Joseph H. Rodriguez is the senior U.S. District judge, District of New Jersey.

As senior U.S. district judges, we urge members of the House and Senate to act by March 1 to halt sequestration—looming, indiscriminate, 5.1 percent budget cuts for the nation's federal courts. Crippling across-the-board budget cuts would threaten constitutional rights, American justice, and court security. Relatively little light has been shed on the effects that these budget cuts would have on our federal court system.

These cuts would devastate the judicial branch, which receives a mere two 10ths of 1 percent of the federal budget. Federal courts operate on a lean budget and have embraced cost containment by measures including staff reduction below authorized levels. Thus, we urge the House and Senate to act quickly and reach a budget agreement that prevents sequestration and all its attendant harms.

[See a collection of political cartoons on sequestration and the fiscal cliff.]

Lawmakers, businesses, and citizens alike must recognize that budget sequestration imperils fundamental constitutional rights and courts that protect those rights. The right to be heard, the right to a speedy and public trial, and the right to effective assistance of counsel in criminal cases are cornerstones of our democracy. Sequestration could dissuade attorneys from accepting appointments to represent indigent defendants because of inadequate funding. Moreover, courts may need to close periodically, furlough employees, and cut security, thereby, delaying proceedings. These realities, combined with a reduction in supervision of persons on bond and convicted felons who are released from prison, compromise public safety. Additionally, offenders with mental health needs or drug and alcohol abuse problems would receive inadequate monitoring and substandard treatment.

Access to justice is not a luxury. If budget cuts slam courthouse doors and postpone trials, some criminal cases may need to be dismissed. Therefore, trust and confidence in our federal courts would be at risk. Additionally, limited funds needed to pay citizen jurors and the priority that must be given to criminal proceedings could delay civil cases as well. At the same time, budget related delays would prevent bankruptcy courts from functioning normally in providing relief to struggling debtors and ailing businesses seeking reorganization. These individuals, businesses, and employees would be harmed and economic recovery will be slowed.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

Cuts to courthouse security personnel and programs may be as high as 30 percent. These cuts would compromise the safety of all who visit or work in federal courthouses, including witnesses, jurors, and judges. Recent tragic shootings at or near courthouses in Delaware and South Carolina underscore that concerns about courthouse safety are not theoretical matters; cuts to funding for courthouse safety will only deepen these concerns.

America's courts are the final line of protection for the legal rights of all. They provide access to justice, protect against abuses of power, and defend the Constitution. Failure to avert sequestration by March 1 undermines the ability of the federal courts to fulfill this Constitutional mandate.