Chief Justice Highlights Lack Of Funding For Federal Judiciary

At the start of the new year, the Supreme Court releases an annual report. Chief Justice John Roberts offers insights into both the year gone by and the one ahead.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Looking back as a new year approaches is something of a tradition at the Supreme Court. And yesterday the High Court released an annual report by the Chief Justice offering insights into both the year gone by and the one ahead. This year, Chief Justice John Roberts highlighted a woeful lack of funding for the federal judiciary. For more we turn to NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Welcome, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Thanks, Renee.

MONTAGNE: You know, I've just mentioned that the chief justice is concerned about funding for the federal judiciary, and that actually is connected with the budget cuts and spending freezes that we've all come to know as sequestration. What does the chief justice say about that?

JOHNSON: Well, budget deal that was struck by bipartisan members of Congress has helped to alleviate some of the most dire problems for the federal judiciary for now. But the courts have cut more than 3,000 jobs since 2011, and John Roberts says that 1,000 more positions are at risk if Congress doesn't act. The big issue here, Renee, is what appropriations panels decide to do when Congress comes back - whether they side with more generous Senate proposals or the slightly less generous House proposals. And here's why it matters. The chief justice says more than 10 percent of federal public defenders already lost their jobs this past year. If there is no action, there are going to be more of those cuts, delaying criminal trials and civil trials. There are going to be reductions in the number of probation officers on duty, and also a reduction in security at federal courthouses. John Roberts also talks about the courts that pay jurors for serving as jurors. That money could run out before 2014 ends, meaning no more jurors for a while.

MONTAGNE: You know, Carrie, some of what John Roberts is predicting and worrying about sounds a lot like what other federal agencies have been sounding the alarms about on the budget when theirs are being cut. And some of the worst predictions actually never happened. What would make the federal courts different? Why would it matter so much to them?

JOHNSON: The chief justice says in his report that the main difference is that the court has constitutional obligations, Renee - right to speedy trial, right to a defense. And John Roberts says, unlike some other agencies, the courts can't control how big their case loads are. They deal with the cases that prosecutors decide to bring, and businesses decide to file, and bankruptcies. And the courts don't do a lot of other spending, so what we're talking about when we talk about cuts is cutting people - cutting people's jobs. To put this all in perspective, John Roberts says unlike some other huge parts of the federal budget, like the defense budget, the courts represent a tiny slice - only two-tenths of 1 percent of the federal government's expenses. So big importance, he says, not a lot of money.

MONTAGNE: Let's talk about some other issues we've been following. Where do things stand, for instance, with vacancies in the courts?

JOHNSON: Renee, there have been some huge fights over the past year over judges - so much so that, of course, the Senate actually changed its rules to make it easier to confirm judges with a simple majority vote. That meant by the end of the year, 2013, two judges were confirmed to the important D.C. Circuit Appeals Court - and another one is likely to get through in January. But a new analysis by the Brookings Institution has found that President Obama still has more vacancies now than when he took office back in 2009. That analysis by Russell Wheeler says Obama's overall confirmation rates to appeals courts are now similar to his predecessors, Bush and Clinton, but the number of lower court judges that President Obama has confirmed are lagging both his predecessors. And right now, Renee, it's just not clear yet whether there's going to be a huge push and huge momentum in the Senate in 2014 on that.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson on the annual report of the chief justice of the United States, John Roberts. Thanks very much.

JOHNSON: You're welcome.

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