As the Washington budget brinksmanship known as sequestration nears a March 1 deadline, federal judges and court officials in New York are bracing for cuts in funding they say will have a marked effect on the efficiency of court operations and public safety.
From pretrial services and probation officers, to interpreters, to staffing in the clerks' offices, officials say the danger is that the forced budget cuts from sequestration would come on top of reductions that have already strained services over the last few years. The result, they fear, will be employee furloughs, slower courthouse operations and, possibly, the suspension of civil trials.
"We are barely limping along with the double digit-cuts we've seen the last two years," Southern District Chief Judge Loretta Preska (See Profile) said yesterday. "We are so far past the muscle and into the bone hereI don't know how we can continue to provide the services we are constitutionally required to provide."
In Brooklyn, Eastern District Chief Judge Carol Amon (See Profile), like her counterparts across the country, is awaiting word from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts on the depth of the cuts, but they are working on an assumption of a 4 percent cut in salaries, on top of the 10 percent budget reduction imposed for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.
Amon said the courts, despite working with leaner budgets, have minimum requirements that cannot be ignored. Cases are filed, defendants are charged and the courts are in no position to turn business away.
"We are talking about a branch of government, not the Department of Education," Amon said.
Prosecutors and staff in the U.S. attorneys' offices and other executive agencies have already received notice of possible furloughs.
In the courts, Eastern District Clerk of the Court Douglas Palmer said furloughs might be one day per month for the fiscal year, but because the year is half complete, employees might have to be furloughed for two days a month to make up the difference.
Palmer and his fellow court officials are used to uncertaintythe courts have been funded by continuing resolutions since 2009but this is new territory.
"We don't know what our budget isit could completely change or they could make up the difference for sequestration when they finish the budget," Palmer said. "The problem is, once somebody takes a furlough, they can't take it back."