Minnesota’s seven federal judges will still be on their benches if the federal funding sequester lingers past Oct. 1, the start of the new federal fiscal year. Courthouses will still be open — most days, anyway — because federal rules require that facilities payments to the General Services Administration (in effect, the courthouses’ landlord) have first claim on courts budgets.
Beyond that, “our infrastructure will crumble,” Michael Davis, chief judge of Minnesota’s federal judicial district, told U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison and staff representatives of the other nine members of Minnesota’s congressional delegation at a breakfast briefing last week. “The quality of justice will diminish. We do not want that to happen.”
It was a rare public plea for support from one Minnesota branch of the federal government to another, delivered in heartfelt terms by a chief judge who rightly fears that something crucial to America’s rule of law — access for all to efficiently administered, capably staffed courts — is threatened by misguided fiscal austerity in Washington. Other sequestration cuts are similarly counterproductive to the national interest. But cuts to the courts damage one of government’s core functions, in ways that could deprive them of the public trust that’s essential to democracy.
Sequestration has cost Minnesota’s U.S. district courts 15.7 percent of their expected budgets in the current fiscal year. That would be bad enough if it had been spread across a full year. It’s worse because it was imposed on March 1 for a fiscal year that will end on Oct. 1.
A variety of temporary measures are getting the district through this year. But cuts that cause lasting damage will follow after Oct. 1 if Congress does not send relief, said Davis and other court officials. The ranks of federal public defenders — who in Minnesota are already outnumbered by prosecutors, 8 to 46 — will shrink. So will the security forces needed to keep courthouses safe. So will the number of released offender supervisors, who are among the nation’s leaders in finding employment and deterring recidivism among offenders.
The courts’ ability to pay salaries commensurate with the private sector will further erode at a time when specialists in business-related law and information technology are already being lured away. Minnesota’s reputation as a court of choice for complex business litigation — and hence as an asset to this state’s Fortune 500 companies — will diminish.
Minnesota has four federal courthouses — in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Duluth and Fergus Falls. One of them could close — an option Davis was plainly loath to mention and says he would vigorously oppose on accessibility grounds. Trial by a jury of one’s peers is denied to accused people if jurors can be reasonably drawn from only one part of the state.
Another unwelcome option, worker furloughs that darken courtrooms periodically, is more likely. But that, too, makes little sense for a district that already has a disproportionately large caseload and relies on nearly full-time work by three retired judges to keep up.
Delays in the administration of justice are sure to be the upshot of so much austerity. Public confidence in the courts is on the line.
“I’ve never begged. I’m too proud to beg,” Davis said. “This is one of the few times. I want you to think very closely about this. Keeping those [courthouse] doors open to people. It’s what makes us a great nation.”
Well said, Your Honor. The partisan budget game is due to resume next week when Congress is back in session. No matter how else the two parties play that game, both should see the restoration of courts funding as a national imperative.