By THE EDITORIAL BOARD
The madness of Washington’s across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration is causing real damage to the American justice system — undermining the sound functioning of the courts and particularly imperiling the delivery of effective legal representation to poor people accused of federal crimes.
The $350 million reduction in the federal judiciary’s budget for fiscal 2013 has resulted in a roughly 8 percent cut to the network of high-quality federal defender offices across 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. And it has inflicted a pay cut on the defenders who remain on staff in the form of up to 20 unpaid furlough days.
These hits to the core legal staff have been accompanied by other blows, including reductions in lawyer training, research, investigation of cases and expert help, including interpreters. The cuts have also meant crippling reductions to federal probation and pretrial services, including mental health treatment, drug treatment and testing, and court supervision — all with disquieting implications for people’s rights and public safety.
In April, a major terrorism trial in New York City being handled by Federal Defenders of New York was postponed until January after lawyers in that office told the judge that budget cuts had left them short of resources and staff. The defendant’s family has since hired a lawyer on its own. Many courts no longer conduct trials on some or all Fridays to accommodate the furloughs of federal defenders and strains in other areas, like courthouse security and the availability of federal marshals.
Judges in certain jurisdictions have warned that they may have to suspend civil jury trials if financing is not restored. All this comes on top of the budget-driven problems plaguing state courts, where representation of impoverished defendants is also grossly underfinanced.
The cuts for federal defenders may actually end up costing taxpayers more. Because indigent defendants still have a right to counsel, new cases that would ordinarily be handled by a federal defender will inevitably be taken up by court-appointed private lawyers. That will lead to worse results at a higher cost, according to academic studies.
That things have reached this point is a deep embarrassment for a nation grounded on the rule of law. Yet it appears that the situation is about to get much worse. Federal defender offices have been told to prepare for another round of cuts of roughly 14 percent for the 2014 fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.
The executive committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States, which sets policy for the federal judiciary, should seek ways to minimize the damage. For instance, it might reallocate funds from less critical administrative areas, spreading the pain of new furloughs across the judiciary staff (except judges). Or it could budget for a delay in fees to court-appointed private lawyers, thus lessening the need for immediate deductions.
But there are really no good alternatives here, given the continuing partisan standoff in Congress as well as lawmakers’ unwillingness to provide the emergency supplementary financing the courts have asked for. Reducing the hourly rates private lawyers are paid, as some have proposed, would simply compound the existing problem of finding capable private lawyers who will fully defend indigent clients.
One thing that might help is a louder and more forceful declaration from Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. about the damage the sequester is doing to America’s courts — the subject of a much-needed Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing scheduled for Tuesday by Senator Christopher Coons, a Delaware Democrat. If nothing else, drawing attention to the plight of federal defenders should make it harder for anyone to claim that the sequester’s impact is no big deal.