Federal judges lament sequestration budget cuts (TX)

Access to federal courts is another danger posed by the fiscal cliff, The Dallas Morning News reports.   “Devastating effects on people’s access to the court system and the administration of justice” could be ahead if sequestration – a series of across the board budget cuts mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011 – occurs upon Congress failing to act prior to Jan. 1.

Describing court operations as already lean, the article warns of basic service cuts including potential holds on civil jury trials and furloughs or layoffs for clerks, court staff, security, probation officers and federal defenders.  Payments to jurors and court-appointed lawyers might be impacted as also might courthouse operating hours.

Dallas U.S. District Judge Barbara Lynn and other judges reportedly contend that a decade of focusing on cost containment has left little room for $550 million or 8 percent cuts of the federal courts’ $7 billion annual spending plan.  “We are truly in angst because we are looking at the real danger of not being able to perform to the standard that is required,” says Lynn in the article.  “We are talking about cuts that pose a danger to the fundamentals of our democracy.”

Explaining his view of sequestration’s “gigantic negative impact” on federal courts, Senior U.S. District Judge Royal Furgeson of Dallas, notes “even though the judiciary is the third and equal branch of our government, the budget for the entire federal court system is less than two-tenths of 1 percent of the federal budget.”

And as the fiscal cliff debate intensifies, the Associated Press reports on another contentious government spending issue involving the federal court system in which Furgeson, well-known in Texas and nationally recognized as president of the Federal Judges Association, plays a prominent role.

From the Associated Press:

With the nation teetering on an economic “fiscal cliff,” federal judges may soon force Congress to dedicate possibly millions of dollars to what some of those same judges must consider a worthy cause: their own salaries.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in October ordered Congress to pay six federal judges years of back pay. Now a group of federal judges is pushing a class-action lawsuit to ensure all of the rest of the federal judges who also missed out on their cost-of-living increases get what they feel is their due.

It’s a touchy subject: One set of federal judges asking another set to essentially approve salary increases for everyone. Though, of course, Congress also ultimately controls its own salaries.

AP further details 1989 Congressional action in which federal judges’ earning ability outside their work on the bench was limited in exchange for judicial salaries being subject to automatic cost-of-living increases.  It says this of Furgeson:

U.S. District Judge Royal Furgeson Jr. of Texas, one of the judges seeking class-action status, called that a “binding commitment” made by the legislative branch for the judicial branch to “receive the same yearly COLAs awarded to all other federal employees, to keep us even with inflation.”

But instead of following through, Congress withheld those cost-of-living increases in 1995, 1996, 1997, 1999, 2007 and 2010, while giving other federal employees their promised increases. “In our view, the exclusion is contrary to the commitment to us, so we have sued to enforce it,” said Furgeson, a senior judge who also serves as the president of the Federal Judges Association.

The fiscal cliff is a consequence of government spending.  Private sector employees have experienced hardship for the last years while federal government workers have enjoyed salary and benefits more than twice that of an average private sector worker (with one in five making more than $100,000).  Budget cuts and their impact are hardly new concepts to many Americans.  The term “shared sacrifice” is often aimed at the American people.  Government has yet to demonstrate its own willingness for the same.

Lou Ann Anderson is an advocate working to create awareness regarding the Texas probate system and its surrounding culture. She is the Online Producer at www.EstateofDenial.com, a Policy Advisor with Americans for Prosperity – Texas and a Director of Women on the Wall. Lou Ann may be contacted at info@EstateofDenial.com.

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