By AMY FORLITI
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) – The chief federal judge in Minnesota urged lawmakers on Wednesday to prevent automatic budget cuts from continuing into the next fiscal year, saying scheduled reductions will slow the judicial process and put public safety at risk.
“Our infrastructure will crumble, and the quality of justice will diminish,” Chief U.S. District Judge Michael Davis said at a breakfast for members of Minnesota’s congressional delegation held to discuss the effects of automatic budget cuts known as sequestration.
Davis and chief district judges from 48 other states sent a letter to lawmakers earlier this month, saying a second year under sequestration “will have a devastating and long-lasting impact on the administration of justice in this country.” More cuts could lead to getting rid of drug testing for offenders on probation, less GPS monitoring of offenders, delays in cases and less security at courthouses.
Spending bills that passed the House and Senate Appropriations Committees include modest increases in the judiciary’s budget, but there is no guarantee they will be approved before the next fiscal year begins Oct. 1.
Davis said the federal judiciary needs its allocated budget of $6.97 billion to function, calling that just a “sliver” of the entire federal budget. The judiciary’s overall budget was cut by nearly $350 million for fiscal year 2013, including nearly $1.2 million locally.
Davis said the probation and pretrial services office cut drug testing of offenders by 25 percent in fiscal year 2013, and another round of cuts would do away with drug testing altogether in 2014. GPS monitoring of high-risk offenders would also have to be curtailed, he said.
Katherian Roe, the federal defender in Minnesota, said in fiscal year 2013, her office went from 20 staff members down to 18, including eight attorneys and three investigators. In fiscal year 2014, she’s looking at another 10 percent reduction, which will result in some layoffs or a 30-day furlough for everyone in her office.
She said cases would be delayed, and suspects could be in custody for longer before trial.
Davis said the poor are entitled to competent attorneys to represent them free of charge.
“It’s not alms for the poor – it’s a constitutional right,” Davis said.
Davis said Minnesota is one of the busiest districts in the country, ranking among the top 10 or top 20 in caseload, depending on the year. The district is a mecca for complicated multi-district litigation and takes on massive patent and civil cases, he said. It also has dealt with terrorism cases and gang cases that have required extra security.
With security budgets sliced, the safety of judges, courthouse staff, the public and defendants are at risk, he said.
Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison attended Wednesday’s breakfast and said funding the judicial system is the right thing to do.
“Even if you do believe the budget should be cut, you should not be cutting the third branch of government to the point where it cannot be functioning properly,” Ellison said. “It is legislative malpractice, in my opinion.”
Davis said he’s hopeful something will be done before it’s too late.
“I’ve never begged. I’m too proud to beg,” Davis told representatives from the lawmakers’ offices. “But this is one of the few times I want you to think very closely about the situation.”