The Albert Armendariz Sr. Federal Courthouse in El Paso -- among the
busiest in Texas because of the number of immigration and drug cases -- may be
forced to close two days a month if the federal government continues to trim
budgets in the next fiscal year, attorneys in El Paso said.
The government's sequestration has affected civil and criminal trials, public defenders and attorneys, but continuing budget cuts in the face of immigration reform could cut courthouse jobs and increase criminal caseloads.
Last year in El Paso, 481 civil cases and 2,726 criminal cases were filed, totaling 3,207 cases overall, according to statistics kept by the Western District of
Texas. The next busiest courthouse in the district, San Antonio, had 1,951 total cases filed last year.
According to statistics provided by the Federal Bar Association in El Paso, the Federal Public Defender's Office has been hit the hardest, and may have to cut its budget by 23 percent in the 2014 fiscal year, which begins in October. Nationwide, the federal judiciary had a $350 million budget cut because of sequestration.
The cuts may force the public defender's office to lay off staff. Since the sequestration began in March, the more than 100 employees in the Federal Public Defender's Office in the Western District of Texas experienced a 10 percent pay cut and have had to take
12 furlough days. In El Paso, the office has 43 employees.
Currently, El Paso's nine federal judges have stopped scheduling criminal cases every other Friday when the defender's office is furloughed. And with the proposed 2013 immigration reform bill, which calls for an increase in border security, criminal cases may increase, said Kristin Kimmelman, president of the Federal Bar Association's chapter in El Paso.
"I think it hits across the board for everyone who is a consumer of judicial services, so to speak, whether it's someone seeking a bond all the way to someone who may seek to have a jury trial and be told it has to be continued to subsequent weeks," said U.S. District Judge Philip Martinez. "I don't think it necessarily deprives defendants of their rights, but it certainly affects the ways justice is administered."
The federal judiciary has made a fiscal year 2013 supplemental request to the Office and Management and Budget and the U.S. Congress, seeking $72.9 million, including $31.5 million for the Courts' Salaries and Expenses account, and $41.4 million for the Defender Services Account.
According to a letter dated Aug. 13 addressed to Vice President Joe Biden and signed by the chief judge of every federal judicial district, the Senate Appropriations Committee recently approved a bill asking for a $496 million increase in judiciary funding for the next fiscal year. And the House Appropriations Committee approved a similar bill requesting a $363 million increase in judiciary funding for fiscal year 2014.
Action on the bills is not expected until after House and Senate members return from August recess.
"A second year under sequestration will have a devastating, and long lasting, impact on the administration of justice in this country," the letter to Biden states.
Officials with the Federal Public Defender's Office in the Western District of Texas are anticipating a $3.7 million budget cut in the next fiscal year, which
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