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“The politicians have failed us … terribly in this regard,” Larry Shelton said.
Wednesday, April 17, 2013
The federal public defender in Roanoke said he will furlough half his staff every other Friday under extraordinary budget cuts now hitting the federal court system.
Calling the cuts “boneheaded” and “stupid,” Larry Shelton said the mid-year reductions known as sequestration led him to reduce pay through a cut in hours — not that he wanted to.
“Sequestration is a stupid way of managing the budget. It makes no sense,” Shelton said. “The politicians have failed us. They failed us terribly in this regard.”
The office, which is based in downtown Roanoke but serves the entire Western District of Virginia, employs 10 attorneys with an average workload of 75 cases a year. It also employs 10 support personnel.
The defender service is the first unit of the local federal court system to acknowledge direct personnel impacts stemming from a $350 million cut in the budget of the federal judiciary this fiscal year, a loss that the American Bar Association predicts will result in thousands of employees taking furloughs and some being laid off.
But more shoes could drop.
More furloughs possible
Furloughs of assistant U.S. attorneys “still look likely,” said Dennis Boyd, who directs the National Association of Assistant United States Attorneys . He said the number of days off is “very up in the air.” Nor did he know when a decision would be made.
The Department of Justice wrote to employees in February saying furloughs were a possibility between April 21 and Sept. 30, according to a copy of the employee noticed released by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Roanoke referred questions to a spokeswoman at the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., who declined to discuss the matter publicly. In addition to the U.S. attorney, the Western District office employs 27 assistant U.S. attorneys and 32 support staff.
In spite of the difficult budget climate, the U.S. District Courts in Western Virginia will stay open five days a week as usual, unlike courts in some other jurisdictions which are periodically closed or are open with reduced service, said Julia Dudley , clerk of the local court.
Federal courts in San Francisco, San Jose and Eureka, Calif., are closed the first Friday of each month, for instance, according to the Administrative Office of the United States Courts.
The Roanoke-based federal court, which employs 47 people at all locations not counting judges and their staffs, is curtailing spending by trimming outlays for travel and supplies, Dudley said. It receives about 1,400 new filings yearly, about four-fifths of them civil cases and the rest criminal cases.
“Our judges are going to continue to hold court. No mass furlough days for the court employees,” Dudley said.
U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of Virginia, with 32 employees and three locations, is struggling with the latest of its budget cuts and expects to “squeak through” without furloughs this fiscal year, said John Craig, clerk of the court.
After Sept. 30 more budget uncertainties loom, he said. If there are further cuts, “we’re going to be in crisis mode,” Craig said.
The U.S. Marshal in the Western District of Virginia, Gerald Holt, said he hasn’t received a final decision on furloughs. His office employs 32 deputies across the district.
“We’ve got our fingers crossed that it won’t happen,” Holt said.
To raise the stakes during deficit-reduction talks in 2011, Congress calendared automatic spending cuts in early 2013 “so disastrous and unreasonable that no one would dare do it and they did it,” Shelton said. “It’s just cutting every agency the same amount no matter the mission of that agency.”
No matter its efficiency, either, he said. As a team of defense attorneys under one roof, the defender service represents criminal defendants who can’t afford a lawyer cost effectively compared with paying private defense attorneys who work alone and can’t spread overhead across a group, he said.
Efficiency was cited as the reason the Roanoke federal defender’s office was created in 2004, officials said at the time. Sequestration undermines that approach, Shelton said.
With its current budget, the service eventually will have to take fewer cases. In response, the court system likely will have to hire more private attorneys to represent defendants, Shelton predicted.
“We certainly can do it cheaper. Our overhead is more concentrated,” Shelton said.
“Overall there will be no savings in this cut,” he said. “It is just a boneheaded approach.”
Shelton said he must cut his budget about 5.5 percent for the fiscal year by Sept. 30. Since only half a fiscal year remains, he’s set in motion about a 10 percent cut in employee pay. Employees of his office, including himself, must trim their normal work schedules by 13 days by Sept. 30, staying out of the office without pay, he said.
That works out to about one day off every other week. Deputy defenders will avoid scheduling court appearances on Fridays for the foreseeable future, he said.
Thirteen days is only the initial furlough regimen. It could take more than 13 furlough days to satisfy budget constraints if the office can’t curb other, non-personnel spending, Shelton said.
Cuts to pay are impossible to avoid, he added, because his office has to pay its rent and, after rent and payroll, what’s left is too small to matter even if cut. The furloughs began the week of April 1, he said.
“Overall it’s not a good situation,” said Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law.
As U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts recently warned, “the courts are pretty much funded at a bare-bones level at this point and so trying to cut more from an already pretty tight budget is not good for the courts generally,” Tobias said.
As Roberts put it in a year-end report Dec. 31: “Because the Judiciary has already pursued cost-containment so aggressively, it will become increasingly difficult to economize further without reducing the quality of judicial services.”
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