Last year’s across-the-board budget cut was a crazy scheme by Congress to hold a gun to its own head to finally deal with federal budget deficits. But the deadline came and went with no action on long-term spending reforms. The result was indiscriminate cuts that unnecessarily crippled some vital federal services.
Indeed, Congress had to restore funds for the Federal Aviation Administration to assure functioning air traffic control towers and for the USDA to keep meat inspectors on the job so meatpacking plants would not shut down. No such exemption has been granted for the branch of government that protects the legal and constitutional rights of all Americans. But it should be.
The federal courts’ total budget of just under $7 billion is just two-tenths of 1 percent of the federal budget. That is hardly a significant contribution to the deficit.
The cuts are having a direct effect on the ability of the nation’s 663 federal judges to deliver justice in a timely manner. Budgets for the federal courts, which already had been flat, were reduced by $350 million through sequestration. Since more than 60 percent of court spending goes to personnel, the budget ax falls on the people who do the work.
Courts can’t control their workload, however. That’s dictated by how many civil suits are filed by parties who have a right to expect the courthouse will be open for business. Criminal cases continue to be filed by federal prosecutors, who aren’t being furloughed. And historic levels of bankruptcy cases are still working their way through the system.
The most serious effect is on criminal defendants who cannot afford an attorney.