Buffalo’s federal court system, already burdened by a backlog of cases, is facing a new hurdle – across-the-board budget cuts that will hit at the core of its criminal justice mission.
The cuts, part of the deficit-reduction process known as sequestration, are deep enough that Chief U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny ordered an end, temporarily, to the hearing of criminal cases on Fridays.
Like a lot of judges across the country, Skretny’s adoption of an all-civil court calender one day a week is seen as the most palatable way of dealing with spending cuts to a wide range of judicial agencies.
The change takes effect this week.
“In my view, it’s not a good thing, but we’re forced to do it,” Skretny said of his order. “Clearly, this is not an ideal situation, but it’s what we need to do under the current financial situation.”
The impetus for Skretny’s decision is the automatic spending cuts that took effect earlier this year and are now hitting every arm of the federal judiciary, from the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI to the U.S. Marshals and the federal Court Clerk’s office.
Even more dramatic are the cuts to the Federal Public Defender’s Office, an arm of the court system viewed as overburdened with cases.
“It’s absolutely devastating,” said federal Public Defender Marianne Mariano. “Our program is crippled.”
Mariano’s office, which is the last line of legal defense for poor people accused of federal crimes, is feeling the impact of sequestration cuts more than most.
Each member of Mariano’s staff – lawyers, paralegals and investigators – will be furloughed 22 days over the next six months, the equivalent of a day a week without pay.
Even more significant, perhaps, is the impact on their clients and the very real concern that their cases will be delayed and their constitutional rights sacrificed.
“There’s no question in my mind cases will be delayed,” Mariano said of the cuts. “And any delay in a case is an injustice.”
And the absence of criminal cases on Fridays is just one of the consequences.
Without more funding, court officials expect to run out of money for jurors in civil cases come September. They also expect it will now take longer to pay court-appointed lawyers and restitution to victims.
And that’s just this year. A lot of people think 2014 could be worse.
“The picture is as bleak, if not bleaker, for next year,” said U.S. District Court Clerk Michael J. Roemer.
Roemer has seen his budget drop by 23 percent in four years. It’s possible, maybe even likely, that another cut will come next year as part of sequestration, the fiscal austerity strategy adopted by Congress in 2011.
To hear court officials here and across the country talk, the impact of sequestration will be severe enough to jeopardize the judicial system’s ability to carry out its mission, much of which is mandated by the Constitution.
The cuts, they warn, will result in reduced courthouse security, fewer probation officers to supervise convicted felons and, yes, even the periodic closing of some federal courts.
Skretny is more optimistic.
“We will do whatever it takes to carry out our mission,” he said. “We’re optimistic things will get better, not worse.”
For Mariano, who is faced with the equivalent of a 20 percent cut in her staff over the next six months, there is one bright spot.
In the days since the cuts became final, more than one member of her staff has approached her and offered to be furloughed for more than 22 days if it helps keep someone else in the office – a single parent, for example – from losing that extra day of pay.
“The incredibly selfless offers,” Mariano said, “have astounded me.”