Archive for the 'Access to Justice' Category
The combined impact of federal budget cuts and the recent partial government shutdown on federal courts often has been called a “double whammy.” Although the 16-day shutdown is past, federal courts in the Dallas, Texas area still are feeling the impact, the Dallas Morning News reports.
A civil case backlog has increased due to the shutdown, when chief judges in many areas temporarily halted civil case proceedings if the government was a party to a case.
The federal public defender in Dallas, Jason Hawkins, said furloughs have led two of his staff attorneys to depart, and two veteran investigators took early retirement. Hawkins said he has five trial attorneys compared to about 58 federal criminal prosecutors working in Dallas. Read more
Both political parties should see restoration of adequate federal court funding as a “national imperative” when Congress returns to Washington from a summer recess next week, a (Minneapolis) Star Tribune editorial urges.
Michael Davis, chief judge of Minnesota’s federal judicial district, told a member of Congress and staff representatives for other members at a recent meeting that if sequestration continues past Oct. 1, “Our infrastructure will crumble.” He added, “The quality of justice will diminish. We do not want that to happen.” The editorial characterized his plea this way:
“It was a rare public plea for support from one Minnesota branch of the federal government to another, delivered in heartfelt terms by a chief judge who rightly fears that something crucial to America’s rule of law — access for all to efficiently administered, capably staffed courts — is threatened by misguided fiscal austerity in Washington. Other sequestration cuts are similarly counterproductive to the national interest. But cuts to the courts damage one of government’s core functions, in ways that could deprive them of the public trust that’s essential to democracy.”
It was one of a parade of recent editorials that have recently urged Congress to restore adequate Read more
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, calling the federal public defender program “in dire straits,” has urged Congress to restore funds slashed through automatic, across-the-board federal budget cuts called sequestration.
Holder made his appeal in a Washington Post op-ed, declaring that the nation’s systems for funding legal representation for indigent criminal defendants are “in financial crisis, plagued by crushing caseloads and insufficient resources. And this year’s forced budget reductions, due largely to sequestration, are further undermining this critical work.” Holder concluded:
“Five decades after the Supreme Court affirmed that adequate legal representation is a basic right, sequestration is undermining our ability to realize this fundamental promise. The moral and societal costs of inadequate representation are too great to measure. Only Congress has the ability to restore the funding that federal defenders need to ensure that justice can be done. It is past time for our elected representatives to act.” Read more
The across-the-board, automatic federal budget cuts called sequestration have taken a toll on federal Public Defender offices nationwide. With the reductions, courts have turned more and more to private attorneys to represent indigent defendants. Now the private attorneys who take these cases will face a hefty cut in their fees.
The United States Judicial Conference announced on Monday a $15 cut in the hourly pay for these private attorneys, from $125/hour to $110/hour for non-capital cases and from $179/hour to $164/hour for capital (death penalty) cases, according to a Reuters article.
U.S. District Judge William B. Traxler Jr., chairman of the Judicial Conference, said in a letter that ”reducing panel attorney compensation rates, deferring panel attorney payments, and limiting federal defender organization funding to the maintenance of current on-board staff are undesirable, and may impact the delivery of justice, but are necessary to avoid permanent damage to the federal defender program.”
Judge Traxler called the cuts “not sustainable in the long term, and [they] certainly would not be required if the judiciary were receiving an appropriate level of funding in this account,” Huffington Post reported. Read more
James Silkenat, a New York attorney and the new president of the American Bar Association, warned of the severe impact of across-the-board, automatic federal budget cuts called sequestration on citizens’ access to justice through public defender programs.
Sequestration “particularly imperils the delivery of effective legal representation to poor people accused of federal crimes,” Silkenat said, according to a Legal Newsline article. He noted that “the $350 million reduction in the federal judiciary’s budget for fiscal year 2013 has resulted in an 8 percent cut to the network of high-quality federal defender offices around the country.
“It has forced the layoffs of many experienced lawyers who have devoted their professional careers to the underappreciated and underpaid work of representing indigent federal defendants,” Silkenat added. “This is a deep embarrassment for a nation grounded on the rule of law.”
Every week, more local news media are highlighting the impact on their courts of sequestration. A Charlottesville (Va.) Newsplex article was headlined, “Sequestration Hits Local Federal Courts.” In New York, possible delays in the retrial of former state Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, due to sequestration, were mentioned in a Troy Record report.
The New Mexico Supreme Court declared in ruling on a criminal case that non-English speaking citizens have a right to sit on juries.
According to an Associated Press article, the opinion advised lawyers and judges of a “shared responsibility to make every reasonable effort to protect the right of our non-English speaking citizens to serve on New Mexico juries.”
In the case at issue, the high court said, a trial court’s dismissal of a prospective juror violated a guarantee in the constitution that a New Mexican’s right to hold office, vote or sit on a jury can’t be limited ”on account of religion, race, language or color, or inability to speak, read or write the English or Spanish languages …”
According to the 2012 Census, New Mexico has a greater percentage of Hispanic residents than any other state, with 47% of residents identifying as either Hispanic or Latino.
Courthouses across the country are restricting hours or shutting down completely in an effort to save money in a time of tight budgets. In California, 77 courthouses are closing their doors, and others are reducing their public service hours. NPR reported on this trend and spotlighted the Fresno County Superior Court’s courthouse in Coalinga, California.
The Coalinga courthouse once had a full-time judge and trials before juries. Then court officials restricted the types of cases heard there, and later, visiting judges took the place of the full-time judge. The courthouse has now been closed for a year as a result of budget cuts. Where a courtroom podium once stood, a television now hangs for traffic court via video streaming. All small claims cases and criminal arraignments are dealt with over an hour away in Fresno, resulting in travel expenses that cost the Coalinga police department about $25,000 last year.
In NPR’s reporting, residents and decision makers discussed the court closing. While one resident discussed the loss of an “American experience,” a local business owner is quoted saying that “I haven’t seen a huge loss with it not being here.” It is clear that diminishing services have limited access to justice. Gavel Grab has been following court funding issues closely; to follow these issues on Gavel Grab, click here.
Earlier this year, federal courts in Oregon had to cancel criminal hearings on Fridays to accommodate budget cuts. This sacrifice seems mild, however, in comparison to the cuts that are looming over the courts due to sequestration—the automatic, across-the-board federal government spending cuts that were triggered March 1.
Oregon Public Broadcasting reports that in August, Oregon’s federal public defender’s office must either lay off 20 to 25 employees or implement 70 to 80 furlough days—an equivalent of a 30 percent salary reduction. According to federal defender Steven Wax (pictured), the budget cuts undermine the defense’s ability to conduct investigations and hire experts. He warned that his office may be forced to seek dismissal of cases simply because there is not enough money to conduct an adequate defense.
Oregon’s public defenders will not be the only ones impacted by sequestration. Salary funding cuts are projected for the state’s federal prosecutor’s office, bankruptcy court, and drug rehabilitation centers.
State courts across the country are currently grappling with the spending cuts brought about by sequestration. Read more about the nation-wide impact on Gavel Grab.
President Obama, acting on the recommendation of the White House Office of Management and Budget, has forwarded to Congress a request by the U.S. courts for a $73 million emergency infusion, necessitated by recent across-the-board budget cuts called “sequestration.”
OMB Director Sylvia Burwell said in her recommendation:
“The Judicial Branch’s request notes that sequestration is impacting the ability of the Judiciary to meet its mission, similar to many Federal agencies across the government. States, communities, businesses, and non-profit organizations across the country are experiencing harmful impacts from sequestration.”
She also cautioned against a piecemeal approach to addressing sequestration, saying “one-off sequestration fixes will leave in place damaging cuts in other critical areas across the Government. The Administration has been clear that the only way to truly fix sequestration is to replace it with balanced deficit reduction, such as that proposed in your FY 2014 Budget.” Her June 7 letter was addressed to Obama. Read more
U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf of Nebraska is so ticked off about the across-the-board federal budget cuts that he’s sounding off in his personal blog.
Take this: “If a banana republic is what members of Congress want,” Judge Kopf writes on herculesandtheumpire.com, according to a World-Herald News Service column, “I may help them get it.”
And this: Out of a concern to free up the time of 10 federal public defenders, he is “seriously contemplating” whether to drop some criminal cases where an immigrant is charged with being in this country illegally.
Why is Gavel Grab leading readers to the World-Herald News Service column instead of Judge Kopf’s own words? Because “The post appears to have been deleted,” according to the Blog of Legal Times.