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Federal court officials predict sequester fallout (UPDATE)

The Wisconsin Eastern District Federal Courthouse. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

Government sequester cuts would mean fewer cases handled by federal prosecutors and defenders at Wisconsin’s Eastern District Federal Courthouse. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

Wisconsin’s federal court system is bracing for another round of budget cuts brought on by the sequester.

More cuts would mean fewer cases handled by federal prosecutors and defenders, and furlough days for prosecutors.

“The agencies within the judicial branch have done a lot of cutting already,” said William Griesbach, the chief judge in U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Wisconsin. “The concern is if these cuts continue or sequestration continues, the impact will be much greater in the future.”

The federal courts system is working with a budget of about $6.6 billion, about $350 million less than what originally was budgeted for fiscal year 2013. Unless an agreement is reached before Oct. 1, more budget cuts are expected nationwide.

According to an Aug. 13 letter to Vice President Joe Biden, signed by 87 chief judges from across the country, “another round of cuts would be devastating” to the federal court system. And a Sept. 10 letter sent to President Barack Obama by Judicial Conference of the United States Secretary John Bates pointed out that the system’s “workload does not diminish because of budget shortfalls.”

The Judicial Conference already is taking steps to trim costs, such as giving judges more leeway in sentencing.

And in anticipation of the possible budget cuts, U.S. Attorneys James Santelle and John Vaudreuil, who represent Wisconsin’s Eastern and Western districts, respectively, said they expect furlough days during the next fiscal year. All U.S. attorneys’ offices would take the same number of days, they said, but the exact number has not been determined.

Santelle said the effects of more cuts would be apparent fairly quickly. Travel budgets and other costs would be reduced, he said, fewer cases would be prosecuted and delays would crop up in investigations and handling matters that normally would not be a problem.

Federal prosecutors “will not be as attentive,” he said, in terms of prosecuting drug, financial fraud and national security cases because they “don’t have the numbers to handle those cases.”

Budget cuts already have affected Vaudreuil’s office, he said, as it and other U.S. attorneys’ offices had to cancel an annual tribal conference to discuss concerns on federal reservations.

“We are cutting things that have really worked for us,” he said.

Federal public defenders are making tough choices, as well. They saw their overall budget slashed by more than $50 million because of the sequester, and like the U.S. attorney’s offices, more cuts are anticipated.

Daniel Stiller, who oversees attorneys who represent the majority of indigent clients in the Eastern and Western districts of Wisconsin, said he laid off six people in March, when the first round of budget cuts kicked in. The 19 attorneys that stayed at the office then had to take six furlough days, he said.

As a result, Stiller said, he’s been forced to give more cases to a panel of private attorneys. Those attorneys are paid $125 an hour to represent clients in Wisconsin, although the Judicial Conference in a letter last month said it plans to reduce that amount by $15.

“The folly of all of this,” Stiller said, “is that at the end of the day, it all amounts to a cost shift, not a cost save.”

Stiller said he doesn’t expect more layoffs or furloughs in the next fiscal year – something other offices across the country most likely will endure – but that’s because he already took that step.

Griesbach, who has been on the bench since 2002, said the consistency and quality of federal defenders ensure that “they get it right the first time so [defendants] don’t come back with claims of ineffective assistance.”

“I would hate to see them lost because of a short-term budget fix,” he said, “where in the long term it’s going to be more costly to the government.”

Vaudreuil said he has spoken to Western District Chief Judge William Conley, as well as the clerk of court, to discuss what to do in terms of scheduling around potential furloughs.

The challenges of further cuts are complicated, Griesbach said, by the fact that a troubled economy often brings more cases to the courts.

“There’s not a lot of things we can do,” he said. “The cases come. They’re filed based on disputes and the down economy often brings more disputes instead of fewer.”

The Associated Press also contributed to this report.

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