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Sequestration will mean thousands of furloughs, possibly layoffs, at federal courts

Dec. 7, 2012 - 02:58PM   |  
By SEAN REILLY   |   Comments
Pedestrians pass by the Dirksen Federal Building in Chicago in 2010.
Pedestrians pass by the Dirksen Federal Building in Chicago in 2010. (Scott Olson / Getty Images)

Severe automatic budget cuts next month, if allowed by Congress to occur, would force federal courts to lay off up to 2,000 employees or furlough 20,000 employees for 16 days, according to the top executive at the agency that runs federal courts.

Even after cutting spending on information technology and other areas, “some local staff reductions” will “regrettably” still be needed, said David Sentelle, chairman of the executive committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States, the chief policy-making body for the federal court system, in a Dec. 4 letter to federal chief judges around the country. He also is chief judge for the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

“On a national basis, up to 2,000 court staff positions (10 percent of the courts’ workforce) could still be lost or, alternatively, the equivalent of 16 furlough days for court staff could be required,” Sentelle wrote.

The budget cuts, officially known as sequestration, would carry “significant adverse impacts on judiciary operations and services,” he added.

The letter opens a window into the vexing choices facing federal managers across government trying to plan for the cuts, which will begin Jan. 2 unless Congress and the Obama administration strike a deal to head them off. For most domestic programs, they could mean an 8.2 percent reduction in fiscal 2013 spending. For the federal court system, that would amount to a $555 million cut, Karen Redmond, a spokeswoman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, said in an interview.

Although each individual court system would be responsible for deciding what furloughs or court closures are needed, the conference’s executive committee has developed a coordinated strategy to allow for some consistency and spread “the required sacrifices equitably across the judiciary family,” Sentelle said. To minimize the impact on employees, the plan calls for significant reductions in spending on training and IT projects; travel limits; and freezes of promotions, step increase and cash awards, he added.

The cuts are required under last year’s Budget Control Act unless lawmakers and the White House agree on a strategy for reducing long-term future deficits by $1.2 trillion. Even if sequestration is averted, court funding will likely feel significant effects, Sentelle said. Long term, the executive committee will study other cost-cutting measures, “with a view toward developing a plan to maintain judiciary operations in an era of ongoing budget austerity,” he wrote.

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