One of America's great hallmarks is its federal court system. In a 2012 Year-End Judiciary Review released by U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts, he highlights the many ways the court system has sought to contain costs by doing more work with less funding, but warned that fewer resources will inevitably lead to compromises in the level and quality of justice delivered.
While the federal judiciary’s $6.97 billion in appropriations for 2012 may sound impressive, it only represents two-tenths of one percent of the United States’ total budget of $3.7 trillion.
“Even though the judiciary consumes such a tiny portion of the federal budget, it must continue to do its part to search out cost savings in the face of the government’s budget deficit,” Chief Justice Roberts said.
In his 16-page report, Justice Roberts explains that the federal judiciary continues to focus on cost saving measures such as rent, personnel expenses, and information technology. However, he also warned that it will become “increasingly difficult to economize further without reducing the quality of judicial services.”
“A significant and prolonged shortfall in judicial funding would inevitably result in the delay or denial of justice for the people the courts serve,” he said.
Comparing America's federal court system to the USS Constitution, which he said was designed in 1797 to be "durable but economical, nimble yet powerful," Roberts, who was nominated by President George W. Bush in 200x, said the court, like "Old Ironsides," has for two centuries remained a "symbol of American courage, skill, and tenacity."
"Two hundred years after the War of 1812, our country faces new challenges, including the much publicized 'fiscal cliff' and the longer term problem of a truly extravagant and burgeoning national debt," he said, adding, "No one seriously doubts that the country’s fiscal ledger has gone awry ... The public properly looks to its elected officials to craft a solution ... We in the Judiciary stand outside the political arena, but we can continue to do our part to address the financial challenges within our sphere."
Key among the most significant cost containment success, Roberts said, has been controlling rent costs. In 2005, the projected costs for rent for fiscal year 2013 was $1.4 billion, but as a result of cost-containment efforts, the fiscal year 2013 interim financial plan for GSA space rental totals less than $1.1 billion, a reduction of almost $322 million from the fiscal year 2005 projection. The court's cost of rent is now 21 percent of the Salaries and Expenses account.
Digital libraries will play a great role going forward, he said, noting that exploring new ways to better utilize space will include more consolidation among libraries that will take advantage of digital library collections.
Nearly 85 percent of personnel costs is for support staff, including clerks, secretaries, and administrative personnel. For this category, he said, options for further savings are limited. The rates of pay for judicial support staff have stayed the same for the past three years like they have for other federal employees, who have not received the standard cost-of-living increases designed to ensure their salaries keep pace with inflation
Another fruitful area for cost savings has been found in the practice of sharing administrative services among court units within and across judicial districts and programs.
Information technology, which accounted for six percent of the Judiciary’s fiscal year 2005 budget, has achieved significant savings through more cost-effective approaches in deploying the computer systems they use to maintain court dockets, manage finances, and administer employee compensation and benefits programs. By 2014, Roberts said several million dollars will be realized through advancements in information technology.
In fiscal year 2012, Roberts wrote that the Court requested an appropriation of $75.55 million to fund its judicial operations—a 2.8 percent decrease from its fiscal year 2011 request of $77.76 million. In fiscal year 2013, the Court’s appropriation request rose to $77.16 million, largely in response to new judicial security needs—but still less than its fiscal year 2011 request. Since that time, the Court has engaged in further cost-cutting, implementing more than $2.2 million in expense-reduction measures, primarily in the areas of financial and human resources management. For fiscal year 2014, the Court will submit an appropriation request of $74.89 million—a 3.7 percent decrease from its fiscal year 2011 request.
Unlike executive branch agencies, the courts do not have discretionary programs they can eliminate or projects they can postpone, because virtually all of the Judiciary’s core functions are constitutionally and statutorily required.
"A significant and prolonged shortfall in judicial funding would inevitably result in the delay or denial of justice for the people the courts serve," Chief Justice Roberts said. "I therefore encourage the President and Congress to be especially attentive to the needs of the Judicial Branch and provide the resources necessary for its operations."
The report included analysis of caseloads in various federal courts. Some of the statistical highlights include:
- In 2012, caseloads increased in the U.S. appellate courts and probation offices, but decreased in the U.S. district courts, bankruptcy courts, and pretrial services system.
- The total number of cases filed in the U.S. Supreme Court decreased from 7,857 filings in the 2010 Term to 7,713 filings in the 2011 Term, a decrease of 1.8 percent.
- Filings in the regional courts of appeals rose 4 percent to 57,501. Growth occurred in all types of appeals except civil appeals, which decreased 1 percent.
- Civil filings in the U.S. district courts fell 4 percent to 278,442 cases. Cases involving diversity of citizenship (i.e., cases between citizens of different states) declined 15 percent, mainly because of a drop in multidistrict litigation filings.
- Filings of bankruptcy petitions declined 14 percent to 1,261,140.
- The 132,340 people under post-conviction supervision on Sept. 30, 2012, represented an increase of 2 percent over the total from the previous year.
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