Judge: Budget cuts could close some federal courthouses

September 14, 2012

Civil jury trials in federal courts probably would grind to a halt if Congress fails to reach a budget deal and $600 billion in automatic spending cuts kick in next year, a leading federal judge said.

The federal judiciary’s share of the cuts would be more than $500 million if Congress does not reach a budget deal by year’s end to prevent some $1.2 trillion in spending cuts and tax increases from kicking in next year, Chief Judge David B. Sentelle of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia said. Economists fear that spending cuts and tax increases of that magnitude would produce a shock that could send the economy off what they have called a “fiscal cliff.”

“Civil jury trials would probably have to be suspended due to a lack of funding,” Sentelle said Tuesday, after a meeting at the Supreme Court of the Judicial Conference, the judiciary’s policymaking arm led by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.

Civil jury trials would be suspended for lack of money to pay jurors, but civil trials before judges without juries probably could continue.

The probation system and payment for defense lawyers also could be thrown into disarray, Sentelle said.

Already overburdened “border courts will be hurt the worst,” he said.

The judiciary is developing contingency plans to deal with severe budget cutbacks, he said. Those might include closing some entrances to courthouses to save money on security personnel.

In a modest cost-cutting move expected to save $1 million a year in rent, the conference also announced that six court facilities in the South would close in the next few years and that more courthouses probably would meet the same fate.

“We ain’t done yet,” said Sentelle, chairman of the conference’s executive committee.

Among the courthouses targeted for closing is the one in Meridian, Miss., the site of significant events in the civil rights movement. Trials for Ku Klux Klansmen implicated in the 1964 deaths of three civil rights workers were held in the 1933 building, and James H. Meredith filed his lawsuit there in 1961 to integrate the University of Mississippi.

The other court facilities that could be closed are in Gadsen, Ala.; Pikeville, Ky.; Wilkesboro, N.C.; Beaufort, S.C.; and Amarillo, Tex., the Judicial Conference said. In Pikeville, only leased space for federal bankruptcy court would be affected, the district’s clerk said. Bankruptcy court would continue in Pikeville’s federal courthouse, which would remain open.

None of the facilities facing closure has a judge based there. Instead, judges travel from larger cities to those courthouses as needed.

The six were chosen from among 60 courthouses in 29 states. There are 674 federal courthouses around the country.

The facilities would be closed in the next several years.

— Associated Press

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