The Washington Post

Chief Justice John Roberts warns of a not-so-wonderful life for judiciary amid budget cuts

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. predicted a Dickensian future for the federal courts if Congress does not find a way to repair some of the damage he said was caused by budget cuts.

In his annual year-end report on the federal judiciary, Roberts apologized for returning to a subject he said has lost appeal. In doing so, he compared his plea to “the revival of favorite phantoms — Scrooge’s ghosts and George Bailey’s guardian angel — who step out from the shadows for their annual appearance and then fade away.”

Roberts’s references to Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” and Frank Capra’s holiday classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” were his attempt to enliven an advocacy of increased funding for the judiciary that he has come to see as an annual chore.

“I would like to choose a fresher topic, but duty calls,” Roberts wrote.

Roberts said the across-the-board cuts demanded by the budget process known as sequestration had hit the judiciary harder than other branches.

“[A]s I have pointed out previously, the independent Judicial Branch consumes only the tiniest sliver of federal revenues, just two-tenths of one percent of the federal government’s total outlays,” the chief justice wrote.

He said the budget cuts that went into effect in March reduced funding by $350 million.

“The impact of the sequester was more significant on the courts than elsewhere in the government, because virtually all of their core functions are constitutionally and statutorily required” and there are few discretionary options available to cut, Roberts said.

Because of flat budgets since 2011 and the sequester, he said, staffing in the courts is at 1997 levels. He said that means fewer clerks to process cases, fewer probation and pretrial officers, fewer public defenders and less funding for court security.

Roberts noted that part of the lost funding was restored in October and said the courts welcomed the recent bipartisan budget agreement.

As a result, he said, the Judicial Conference — which makes policy decisions with regard to the administration of the U.S. courts — in early December revised its appropriation request to $7.04 billion.

“That amount strikes a fair balance,” Roberts wrote. “It is $180 million less than the Judiciary’s original budget request (we were optimistic), $120 million less than the amount approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee in its version of the Judiciary’s spending bill, and only $13 million more than the amount approved by the House Appropriations Committee in its bill.”

Unlike the dramatic pleas he made after he became chief justice in 2005, Roberts did not bother to lobby for judicial pay raises.

Robert Barnes has been a Washington Post reporter and editor since 1987. He has covered the Supreme Court since November 2006.


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