The Sequester Has Now Hit the Federal Courts
President Obama has been having a difficult time getting his federal judicial nominees confirmed and now the sequester and furloughs have hit those judges already serving on the federal bench. There has been little talk since the sequester began on when it might end. And no federal agency was exempt from sequestration. Now with many of the federal courts in an emergency situation due to a lack of judges being confirmed to fill vacancies, furloughs are now beginning to take place. And yes, the furloughs will mean closing federal court houses that are already backlogged with overwhelming dockets. It will also mean reducing trial time and hearings. Even federal prosecutors, federal public defenders who represent defendants and the U.S. Marshall’s office will be placed on furlough. For a court system that is already running on fumes, it will further hamper the judicial process. For that man or woman who has been waiting to have their criminal or civil case heard, they will now have to wait even longer.
In major cities, the federal dockets can become backlogged due to the lack of judges and an emergency status declared in some areas based on unfilled judicial vacancies. Now litigants must endure even further issues with the courts taking furlough days and being completely closed. The move will not just inconvenience parties, witnesses, judges and lawyers, it will compromise our entire federal court system.
As reported in an earlier blog post, federal courts decide cases about clean air, environmental issues, social justice issues, privacy issues, reproductive rights, corporate accountability, employment issues, first amendment issues, criminal law, Voter Rights Act cases to name a few. Just about every issue important to our society is decided by cases in federal court.
Litigants must wait a long time for their case to be tried and then sometimes appealed. Now they will just have to wait even longer for justice and their day in court. To say that the wheels of justice runs slow is an understatement in this case. Many of those persons awaiting a trial date that could be prolonged by furloughs are persons awaiting for a criminal case to be adjudicated. Our system presumes that a criminal defendant is innocent until proven guilty. And there are many defendants who are later found to be not guilty by a jury or judge. However, before their day in court, often defendants are not able to make bail or may be placed on no bail status while awaiting a trial date. A furlough delay for someone in jail who is awaiting a criminal trial that may be later be found not guilty is more than a little inconvenience. It is a denial of justice.
Our system deserves better than it is now receiving. The sequester hit every segment of the federal arena. In the federal court system, it is rocking our system of justice. In civil trials, the judges may decide to limit the time of trials or hearings to accommodate the issues associated with the furloughs. Limiting the amount of time to hear a case based on a lack of judges, lack of court time due to a backlogged system is not what our Founding Fathers had in mind with our judiciary branch. Yet, until or if and when the sequester ends, our system of justice will continue to be compromised. This hardly seems fair and yet that’s exactly what courts and judges are supposed to be.
Debbie Hines is a practicing trial attorney who has practiced in federal trial and appellate courts throughout the country.