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Federal judiciary warns of impact of budget cuts

People line up for admission at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington October 1, 2012. REUTERS/Gary Cameron
People line up for admission at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington October 1, 2012. REUTERS/Gary Cameron

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The federal judiciary on Tuesday warned of the consequences of compulsory budget cuts on court operations nationwide.

If the cuts imposed by the Congress remain in place, funding for federal courts this year will drop to about $6.6 billion, down around $350 million, or 5 percent from fiscal year 2012, the Administrative Office of the Courts, the national management body for the judiciary, said in a statement.

The judicial branch is one of the government entities affected by the budget stand-off between President Barack Obama and Congress, which led to a series of automatic spending cuts, known as sequestration, taking effect on March 1.

The cuts could lead to up to 2,000 employees being laid off or the introduction of a furlough program that would lead to a 10 percent pay cut for those affected, the administrative office said.

The impact on the current fiscal year, which runs until the end of September, would be felt across a number of court services, including probation, drug testing, mental health treatment and the processing of civil and bankruptcy cases.

Funding for court security systems would also be cut by 30 percent, the statement said.

The budget issue was the main topic of discussion when the Judicial Conference, the federal judiciary's policy-making body, met in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday.

Chief Judge William Traxler of the Richmond-based 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, the chairman of the executive committee, told reporters that the judiciary had to make do with what it was given.

But, he said, "we worry about it detracting from our ability to meet our constitutional responsibilities."

Judge Thomas Hogan, the director of the administrative office, outlined the impact of sequestration in more detail in a letter to Iowa Republican Senator Charles Grassley last week.

Hogan said in his letter to Grassley that the measures "will be difficult and painful to implement."

Beyond the current fiscal year, the judiciary "cannot continue to operate at such drastically reduced funding levels" while carrying out its required duties, he added.

Grassley had pressed the judiciary for concrete details on its plans after voicing skepticism that the cuts would be as devastating as Hogan had outlined in an earlier letter.

In a statement on Tuesday, Grassley said that the more detailed review provided by Hogan showed that the court system "was able to better distribute sequestration cuts without the drastic measures they originally warned about."

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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