Idaho’s federal judges: financial crisis threatens function of 3rd branch

Idaho’s two top federal judges are warning the state’s congressional delegation that budget cuts threaten the judiciary’s ability to “continue to even function as a court and an independent branch of government.”

Chief U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill and Chief Bankruptcy Judge Terry Myers say the federal courts in Idaho are “facing a financial crisis which is unparalleled in our 150 year history” because of slowed spending and sequestration cuts that began March 1.

In a Thursday letter to Idaho’s all-Republican delegation, Winmill and Myers say the crisis applies to district and bankruptcy courts, probation and pretrial services and attorneys provided as a constitutional right to indigent defendants.

Also last week, 87 of the 94 chief federal judges in the country wrote top congressional leaders and Vice President Joe Biden saying courts have been forced to “slash our operations to the bone, and we believe our constitutional duties, public safety, and the quality of the justice system will be profoundly compromised by further cuts.”

Winmill was a signatory to that Aug. 13 letter.

In the letter to Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch and Reps. Mike Simpson and Raul Labrador, Winmill and Myers say financial conditions in Idaho’s federal courts are “even more dire” than the situation nationally.

They ask for a meeting with the delegation and Simpson, who chairs an Appropriations Committee subcommittee, said he would accept the invitation.

“I think they’re right,” Simpson said Tuesday after reviewing the letter. “It demonstrates the problem of trying to balance the budget on just discretionary spending” which accounts for 28 percent of the budget. “I’m more than happy to come and meet with them.”

Winmill told the Statesman he hopes a meeting can happen soon. “We are absolutely devastated,” he said. “I just don’t know how we’re going to continue to function if something doesn’t change.”

Idaho has long had two district judges — the other is Judge Ed Lodge, who has been on the state and federal court bench for 50 years  — though the jurisdiction’s caseload and population “suggest we should have at least three district judges,” write Winmill and Myers.

Simpson once introduced a bill to add a third judge, cosponsored by former Rep. Walt Minnick, D-Idaho, but it didn’t advance. Simpson said a national approach is necessary, as other jurisdictions have serious caseload problems.

Idaho also has no senior judges, a rarity that costs the district money. The federal funding formula does not account for a far-flung geography that requires full-time offices in Coeur d’Alene and Pocatello, the pair writes.

The letter outlines the impact of fiscal 2014 spending reductions in three divisions.

District and bankruptcy courts were consolidated to save money more than 25 years ago and Idaho is one of only four districts with such consolidation. In 2012, Idaho ranked as the sixth-most productive court among the 94 districts.

“In short, we have always operated a very lean organization,” write the pair.

Since fiscal 2012, staffing has been cut 30 percent, from 56 to 39 positions.  “It remains to be seen how, and whether, we can absorb this shock to the District and Bankruptcy Court,” write Winmill and Myers.

Under sequestration for the 2014 fiscal year beginning in October, the Idaho courts plan to impose 13 days of unpaid furlough and reprogram up to 70 percent of the information technology budget as “an act of desperation…only done to avoid laying off another eight employees,” the pair writes. “This cannot be repeated in the future without jeopardizing our entire court operation which has become so dependent on automation.”

In Probation and Pretrial Services, annual cuts averaged between 8 percent and 13 percent between fiscal 2011 and fiscal 2013. Staffing is at 65 percent of the office’s staffing formula, write the judges, and staff will face a minimum of four furlough days in fiscal 2014.

The Federal Defender Services of Idaho cut spending 14 percent in February, accomplished with attrition and seven days of mandatory furlough. The office has been told it will receive another 23 percent reduction.

“Because 90 percent of its budget is consumed by personnel and rent costs, with rents costs being locked in by long term contracts, the only way to achieve this cuts is by imposing 43 days of furlough, or through massive layoffs,” write the judges.

Because of the constitutional obligation to provide legal assistance to the poor, the court will be required to appoint more private attorneys under the U.S. Criminal Justice Act. “Those appointments come at a much higher price tag than the representation by Defender Services,” write Winmill and Myers.

In March, Supreme Court Justices Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer took the unusual step of testifying about the judiciary budget.

Said Kennedy to a House Appropriations subcommittee: “Please consider the 0.2 percent of the federal budget for the entire third branch of the federal government is more than reasonable. What’s at stake here is the efficiency of the courts, and they are … not only part of the constitutional structure, they are part of the economic structure of the country.”

In the Aug. 13 letter to congressional leaders, Winmill and the other judges write, “A second year under sequestration will have a devastating, and long lasting, impact on the administration of justice in this country.”

The 87 chief judges ask that if it appears Congress won’t be able to agree on a budget and, instead, passes a Continuing Resolution for fiscal 2014, that an exception be made for the judicial branch. The judges suggest adopting the 7 percent increase in post-sequestration spending approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee, a $496 million increase. The House Appropriations Committee has approved a 5 percent increase over sequestration levels, or $363 million.

 

 

Dan Popkey came to Idaho in 1984 to work as a police reporter. Since 1987, he has covered politics and has reported on 25 sessions of the Legislature. Dan has a bachelor's in political science from Santa Clara University and a master's in journalism from Columbia University. He was a Congressional Fellow of the American Political Science Association and a Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan. A former page in the U.S. House of Representatives, he graduated Capitol Page High School in 1976. In 2007, he led the Statesman’s coverage of the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news. In 2003, he won the Ted M. Natt First Amendment award from the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Association for coverage of University Place, the University of Idaho’s troubled real estate development in Boise. Dan helped start the community reading project "Big Read." He has two children in college and lives on the Boise Bench with an old gray cat.

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