News Column

Sequestration May Mean Trouble for Public Defenders

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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 would be a 23 percent cut to its total budget.

Defense attorneys said they are concerned whether any further cuts will translate into potential violations of a defendant's constitutional rights.

"Defendants arrested on Tuesday get a bond hearing on Friday, but now they're being held on Monday," said Brock Benjamin, an El Paso criminal defense attorney and board member of the Federal Bar Association's chapter in El Paso. Taxpayers are "paying for the additional time (defendants) spend in jail."

Kimmelman said there may also be a delay in criminal cases being scheduled, and a potential risk of a defendant's rights not being protected because of delays in having a bond hearing or a speedy trial, or sufficient access to an attorney.

Any delays in criminal cases may also lead to civil cases and trials being postponed for long periods, said Carlos Eduardo Cardenas, a local civil attorney and president-elect of the El Paso chapter of the American Board of Trial Advocates.

"Civil cases already have a backlog" in the federal court system, Cardenas said, and added any further delays will "cost litigants time and money, and damages will increase. We have a capable and hard-working judiciary in El Paso, but there's only so much they can do."

Maureen Scott Franco, the federal public defender for the Western District of Texas, which includes El Paso, said cuts to her office may lead to judges appointing more expensive Criminal Justice Act, or CJA, attorneys, who are usually attorneys in private practice who also make themselves available for federal appointments to cases. Private lawyers who are appointed to federal cases are paid $125 an hour.

"I believe it is now widely ... held that the federal public defenders have suffered the full and true effects of the sequester," Franco said in an email to the El Paso Times. "Our program throughout the U.S. is threatened to its very core if we do not get funding relief in Fiscal Year 2014. The cuts to my budget will result in fewer employees in the El Paso office and fewer cases we could handle."

Franco said the cost shifting from federal public defenders to appointed attorneys will end up costing the U.S. taxpayers "much more money."

Because of the cuts, the Federal Public Defender's Office has had to institute 12 furlough days, resulting in a 10 percent pay cut, and has cut funding available for CJA attorneys.

The effects of sequestration have also trickled down to legal nonprofit organizations such as Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, which recently had to lay off six employees, or one-fourth of its total staff, and has had to reduce work hours from 40 hours a week to 35 hours a week.

Officials with the organization said that as a result, 5,000 fewer families will be served in its service area in West Texas, and 500 fewer families in El Paso. Locally, three staff members were laid off because of the reduction in work hours.

"If you start shutting the door of the courthouse, when will justice be served?" asked Alberto Mesta Jr., branch manager and attorney for Texas RioGrande Legal Aid in El Paso. "'Justice delayed is justice denied.'"

Adriana M. Chavez may be reached at 546-6117.

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(c)2013 the El Paso Times (El Paso, Texas)

Visit the El Paso Times (El Paso, Texas) at www.elpasotimes.com

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