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Courts warn of trial suspensions, layoffs and furloughs

Mar. 11, 2013 - 05:58PM   |  
By SEAN REILLY   |   Comments

Some federal courts may have to suspend civil jury trials in September if other options for managing across-the-board budget cuts fall short.

In addition, the courts may have to lay off up to 2,000 employees or impose furloughs for one day per pay period, Thomas Hogan, director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, said in a letter last week to members of Congress. Throughout the court system, about 21,000 employees are vulnerable to furloughs or other cuts.

The sequester-related cuts will take almost $350 million — or 5 percent — out of the courts’ total budget this year, Hogan wrote. The reductions “will have serious implications for the administration of the justice and the rule of law,” Hogan wrote.

Other likely measures include cuts to training, security system funding and the offices of federal attorneys who represent defendants.

It will be up to each district and circuit court to decide how to absorb its share of the cuts. A temporary halt to civil jury trials would be a “last step” near the end of the fiscal year if other cost-cutting efforts prove unsuccessful, Karen Redmond, a court system spokeswoman, said Monday.

In general, however, most civil cases are resolved before going to a jury.

For some district courts, suspending trials won’t help because “they have very few anyway,” Julie Brown, a spokeswoman for the American Bar Association, said in an email.

Unlike executive branch agencies, courts are under no requirement to give employees 30 days’ notice, but Hogan’s office recommended a two-week heads-up. Like members of Congress, judges cannot be furloughed. Also exempted are law clerks and other “chambers” staff employees because of their essential role in helping judges do their jobs, Redmond said.

In handling the cuts, courts faced an added complication in working with Justice Department agencies that are also subject to the sequester. Both U.S. marshals, who furnish courthouse security, and federal prosecutors face furloughs of up to 14 days by the end of September. Hogan’s office urged individual courts to “reach out” to DOJ contacts “to coordinate activities that impact court operations, such as filing deadlines, court schedules and operating hours.”

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