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Budget cuts harming federal courts, Chief Justice Roberts warns

WASHINGTON -- Chief Justice John G. Roberts warned in his year-end report that federal courts across the nation have been badly squeezed by budget cuts imposed by Congress, forcing delays in trials and leading to layoffs among court staffs, probation officers, security guards and public defenders.

The chief justice, in addition to leading the Supreme Court, serves as the head of the federal judicial system. He devoted his annual report to the dire consequences of the so-called “sequester” cuts set last year by Congress.

“I would like to choose a fresher topic, but duty calls,” Roberts wrote. “The budget remains the single most important issue facing the courts.”

He said the 5% budget cuts for the judiciary hit hard because it came after several years of flat or reduced spending and because judges cannot simply call off trials or close their doors to new cases.

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“The impact of the sequester was more significant on the courts than elsewhere in the government,” he wrote. “Unlike most Executive Branch agencies, the courts do not have discretionary programs they can eliminate or postpone in response to budgets cut. The courts must resolve all criminal, civil and bankruptcy cases that fall within their jurisdiction, often under tight time constraints.”

The judicial system “consumes only the tiniest sliver of federal revenues, just two-tenths of one percent of the federal government’s total revenues,” he said. Yet, since 2011, the courts have been forced to reduce their staffing levels by 14%, while the federal public defender offices cut staffing by 11% in 2013 alone, he said.

But Roberts said he sees signs of hope in the new year. The recent bipartisan budget deal would allow for the courts to “receive some needed relief” in 2014.

“In the coming weeks, and into the future, I encourage the president and Congress to be attentive to needs of the Judicial Branch and avert the adverse consequences that would result from funding the judiciary below its minimal needs,” he said.

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