Certain uncertainty-Chief Judge discusses impact of sequestration

By Gary Gosselin

Dolan Media Newswires

Washington's inability to reach agreement over the federal budget and the sequestration that followed will have far-reaching implications--including huge cuts at the federal courts and related services in Michigan.

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, with offices in Detroit, Ann Arbor, Port Huron, Bay City and Flint, is facing salary cuts of 14 percent, 20 percent in nonsalary operating costs and probation and pretrial an additional 20 percent in cuts.

"We're hopeful we can get through this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, without having to do furloughs or layoffs but it's not a sure thing by any means," District Court Chief Judge Gerald Rosen told Michigan Lawyers Weekly. "And beyond that into next year it's anybody's guess. I don't know how we are going to provide the level of service that the public expects-- that they have a right to expect."

Sequestration, which began March 1, entails cutting $8 billion from the U.S. budget. The move was agreed to by Republicans and Democrats last year as a way to force them to negotiate. It failed.

The federal court system is expected to have to cut about $350 million or about 5.5 percent of its $6.6 billion budget.

The court has been cutting every year for the last five years, said Rosen and Court Administrator David Weaver, who noted, "We have literally cut to the bone."

They said the court, which has 425-450 employees, is down 30-plus people in the clerk's office and 50-55 people down in the probation and pretrial area. The Eastern District is one of the 10 largest federal trial district courts in the country, and serves about 6.5 million of Michigan's 10 million residents.

Rosen said he's not sure exactly when and how the cuts will be presented to them, over a short period or extended amount of time. Even the ongoing budget, funded on a continuing resolution, is set to expire March 27, and there is little information going forward.

"I wish I could give some degree of [certainty] as to when we're going to know and what we're going to know," Rosen said. "One of the greatest frustrations for me is the uncertainty of funding levels; it's very difficult to plan when you don't know your funding levels."

The personnel numbers he cited don't include security personnel, which has both contracted court security officers and Marshals. And it doesn't include the bankruptcy courts, which are facing the same percentage of cuts. Those offices were unavailable for comment.

Rosen said he's been in contact with District Courts throughout the country; they all are sharing information when they get it. Some courts are in worse shape than Michigan, he said and are talking about closing their offices at various intervals to save money.

"Is sequestration going to affect us? And the answer is we've been preparing for it by doing all the cutting we can, so any further cutting is going to be impossible without furloughs or layoffs and impacting the lives of our employees," Rosen said. "And a greater concern we have is public safety and the role we fill."

He said they're facing cuts in a full range of pre-trial and offender services including drug testing, electronic tethers, cognitive training, mental health care and probation and offender supervision.

The White House released a list of $140 million in direct cuts to Michigan in various programs, but none appeared to affect state courts.

The Michigan Department of Technology Management and Budget has spoken to representatives from the federal government but have no details yet, said Kurt Weiss, public information officer, who added that it will likely be two weeks before they have any definitive information.

The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan did not return calls for comment, but it appears they also are bracing for 14 percent salary and 20 percent non-salary cuts.

The Justice Department has announced that for all U.S. Attorney offices for the remaining seven months of the fiscal calendar year, they will be furloughing 14 days, or two days a month for every justice department employee other than U.S. Attorneys, and Defenders.

Luckily, Rosen said, there is local flexibility in the court's budget so they were able to shift dollars from one department to another in some years to shore up where dollars were cut. That meant shorting other departments--a budgetary shell game whose time has run out, he said.

Portions of this story originally appeared in Lawyers USA, which, like Michigan Lawyers Weekly, is a Dolan publication.

Published: Thu, Mar 14, 2013