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January/February 2014, Vol. 56, No. 1

Governmental Relations 

NYSBA continues to argue that federal courts must have proper funding

Alan Rothstein, Sandra Rivera, Rep. Jose Serrano and NYSBA President David M. SchraverD.C. lobby—President David M. Schraver and members of the Committee on Federal Legislative priorities meet with Rep. Jose Serrano on Dec. 4, 2013 to discuss the impact of federal budget sequestration on the federal courts and funding for legal services. L-R: Alan Rothstein, Sandra Rivera, Serrano and Schraver. 

By Ronald F. Kennedy, Director
Early in 2012, then-President Seymour W. James, Jr. and the State Bar were among the earliest advocates focused on sequestration and its destructive impact on critically important federal programs.  

Current President David M. Schraver has continued to deliver a specific message to members of Congress from New York, most recently during his trip to Capitol Hill on Dec. 4, 2013.  

That message: the courts serve as the cornerstone for our democratic society, and it is critical that they receive the funding they need to carry out their functions. We realize that there currently are significant budgetary pressures on Congress, but the requirements of the courts must be met if we are to have a meaningful system of justice. 

The reduced funding over recent years, including the impact of sequestration in the last fiscal year, has resulted in a reduction of $350 million in the budget of the courts. This has caused a 14 percent staff reduction and a slashing of non-salary items. 

We continue to impress upon federal policymakers that the courts cannot function with further cuts. Even with flat funding in 2014, the court system will face a crisis. 

The following are examples of the actions that will have to be taken by the courts if funding is not increased.   
• Courts salaries and expenses: Flat funding in 2014 would result in a 3 percent drop in operating budgets for court units nationwide. This would mean an estimated loss of 1,000 additional employees through the end of the fiscal year, on top of the staffing loss of 3,000 employees since July 2011. This would lengthen an already severe backlog in the processing of civil and bankruptcy cases and further reduce public hours in clerks’ offices;
• Defender services: Without additional funding from Congress for defender services, the Judiciary will need to defer up to two weeks of panel attorney payments into fiscal 2015 and temporarily reduce panel attorney hourly rates by $15 per hour for capital and non-capital work performed from Sept. 1, 2013 to Sept. 30, 2014. This would diminish the size and quality of the available pool of qualified attorneys, could damage the federal defender program and impede the constitutionally mandated right to counsel;
• Fees of jurors: A hard freeze for fees of jurors in 2014 would result in a $6 million shortfall. This would mean that funding for juror costs would run out two months before the end of the fiscal year; and,
• Court security: Flat funding for court security in 2014 would result in a $23 million funding shortfall, and require further reductions in security systems and equipment. Cuts of this magnitude would create severe security vulnerabilities throughout the federal court system by impairing the U.S. Marshals Service’s ability to provide adequate security for judges, jurors, litigants, court personnel and the public. 

Dispute resolution

In addition to these fundamental concerns related to the ability of our Judiciary to fulfill its crucial constitutional role, New York has a unique interest in supporting the integrity of our justice system, given our state’s role in resolving commercial disputes, in both domestic and international matters.

The business community requires accurate and comprehensive information on choice of laws, procedures and legal systems to govern agreements. Because of New York’s long history as a commercial center for domestic and international transactions, New York case law provides rich and comprehensive guidance for a broad range of commercial disputes. This provides a high level of predictability and stability to parties, contract negotiators and litigators.

In recent years, New York has faced competition from other global business centers that have become increasingly attractive to parties crafting cross-border agreements or engaged in international disputes.  

Inadequate court funding, resulting from sequestration and other funding cuts threaten the efficiency and predictability of our Judiciary. Additional costs for litigants due to funding-related delays, along with the concerns that accompany the downward budget spiral, serve as particularly significant disincentives for the international community to choose New York as the forum for dispute resolution.

In light of these and other important issues, the State Bar has continued to request funding for our federal judicial system necessary to maintain the high quality of our courts, ensure fair treatment of parties in civil and criminal proceedings, and ensure that our Judiciary is able to fulfill its constitutional mandate.