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Utah's federal court system braces for cuts

Published March 28, 2013 9:29 am

Budget • Agencies trim expenses and prepare employees for unpaid days.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Beginning in April, Utah's federal court will limit its Friday calendar so judges hear criminal cases every other week on that day as court-related agencies reduce staff or furlough employees because of sequestration.

Federal prosecutors, public defenders, probation officers and U.S. marshals are all affected by the funding squeeze, which is resulting in an approximately 10 percent cut for most agencies and 10 to 15 days of unpaid leave per employee.

Congress approved a spending bill this week that leaves in place $85 billion in cuts for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, while giving federal agencies more flexibility for how to implement the automatic cuts that kicked in March 1. The U.S. Department of Justice must trim $1.6 billion.

"It's pretty grim," said Mark Jones, U.S. District court clerk. "It looks like it's really going to happen."

U.S. District Judge Julia Gibbons of the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals and chairwoman of the Judicial Conference's budget committee, told a House subcommittee recently that its constitutionally mandated responsibilities result in an "uncontrollable workload" that must be met despite any budget shortfalls.

"We must adjudicate all cases that are filed with the courts, we must protect the community by supervising defendants awaiting trial and criminals on post-conviction release, we must provide qualified defense counsel for defendants who cannot afford representation, we must pay jurors for costs associated with performing their civic duty, and we must ensure the safety and security of court staff, litigants and the public in federal court facilities," Gibbons said. "If sufficient funding is not provided to the courts, we cannot provide the people of the United States the type of justice system that has been a hallmark of our liberty throughout our nation's history."

Nationally, the judiciary has already trimmed 1,800 court staff during the past 18 months. The $350 million budget cut it faces means an additional 2,000 employees face layoffs or furloughs, Gibbons said.

Jones said Utah's federal court began tightening its budget two years ago, leaving about 10 jobs unfilled as staff left or retired. Because of that, it won't have to order furloughs.

But it is paring court calendars on some Fridays, when only civil cases will be scheduled, to accommodate coordinated furloughs imposed by other federal agencies.

The change is set to begin April 26.

"There are some people here it is definitely going to hurt their checkbook," said Dave Carnahan, acting U.S. marshal for the District of Utah. In Utah, the U.S. Marshals Service employs about 40 people, each of whom will have to take one unpaid day of leave per two-week pay period between April 21 and Sept. 30. Marshals provide courthouse and judicial security, oversee the federal witness-protection and forfeiture programs, apprehend fugitives, transport federal prisoners and run the Joint Criminal Apprehension Team.

"For the first time in my career, we've authorized employees being furloughed to seek outside employment on that day," said Carnahan, who this month marked his 25th year with the service. The temporary jobs can't be security related.

"Nobody likes getting hit in the bank account, but we're trying to deal with it as best we can," Carnahan said. "All of us, I think, are thankful to have a job, even though we're going to be hit financially on a personal level."

Utah's Federal Public Defender's Office, which employees 51 people, will begin furloughs April 26.

"The effect of these cuts is devastating to our office, due to the fact that our budget consists mainly of personnel costs and case-related expenses," said Kathy Nester, Utah federal defender. "Our employees are dedicated public servants, and their families face real financial harm as a result of these cuts. ... It is particularly ironic that we face these dire cuts in the year marking the 50th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, which guaranteed the right to counsel regardless of the ability to pay."

Utah's Federal Probation Office, which supervises 2,600 people on pretrial release or probation, has eliminated 11 positions since October, mostly through early retirements. The office, which also prepares presentence and bail reports, cut training and transportation budgets. It recently closed a satellite office in Ogden partly because of sequestration.

The office will be able to avoid furloughs for now because of those trims. But with the reductions, it now employs just 67 people — about 75 percent of a full staff and on par with the size of staff it had in 2002 — despite the fact that the number of people now under its supervision has increased.

"We've done everything we can right now," said David Christensen, chief U.S. probation officer for the District of Utah. He fears that public safety may soon be at risk because of 20 percent cuts to mental-health and substance-abuse treatment funding.

The Justice Department anticipates U.S. attorneys' offices will handle 1,600 fewer civil cases and 1,000 fewer criminal cases as it adjusts to nearly $100 million in cuts. And that will affect its ability to ensure that justice is served, the department said. The department is still working on its plan, but has notified its 115,000 employees — including about 80 in Utah — that they each may have to take up to 14 days of unpaid leave.

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