Next Friday, barring last-minute action from Congress, the series of crippling automatic budget cuts known affectionately as “sequestration” will go into effect, immediately slicing 8.2 percent off non-defense spending for 2013. It’s the continuation of the so-called “fiscal cliff,” which was supposed to hit January 1st, but Congress moved this component to March because two potentially disastrous political showdowns are more fun than one.
If you haven’t heard about the sequestration, here’s a good primer, and you’re officially working too hard.
The legal field will be especially hard hit…
First of all, I’d like to have a round of applause for the Republican Party messaging operation that has gone into overdrive this week, reminding Americans that President Obama signed the sequestration into law (after it passed through Congress) and therefore requesting that we place all blame for this policy squarely on Obama. They’ve started to call it “Obamastration.” That’s some top-notch Newspeak for an idea that hard-core conservatives spent years touting. It would be like the NRA saying they were against background checks after advocating them in the 90s — I mean, really crazy stuff.
Anyway, the Department of Justice is not immune to the looming 8.2 percent cuts. So what’s likely to go down at DOJ? According to ABA President Laurel Bellows:
Sequestration would gut the Department of Justice — and the Federal Bureau of Investigation; Drug Enforcement Administration; and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives with it. The FBI has foiled at least 30 separate terror plots since Sept. 11….
It is estimated that sequestration would cost the DOJ, FBI, DEA and ATF some 3,700 agents and U.S. marshals. Nearly 1,000 attorneys would be asked to stop protecting the homeland and start applying for new jobs. Sequestration would put the United States in the vulnerable position of having to choose what kinds of serious crimes to prevent.
Federal programs that give states the resources to hire police officers and prosecutors to take violent criminals off the streets would be severely diminished. Initiatives such as state and local law enforcement assistance programs, juvenile justice programs and efforts to combat sexual and domestic violence that have already endured budget cuts would be scaled back even further.
Well. That just doesn’t sound good at all. At least the private sector is totally ready to absorb 1,000 out-of-work lawyers. And the most likely programs to face the ax are juvenile justice, and sexual and domestic violence programs? Sounds like a great idea — those aren’t traditionally underprosecuted crimes or anything.
But wait! There’s more! From an interview with Nina Totenberg:
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said Tuesday that if the Justice Department were faced with budget cuts due to sequestration, he believes that he would be able to maintain public safety by shifting resources and that the federal prison system could operate “for months” if necessary.
Hey, can we focus on the whole “for months” part? That sounded just a tad ominous in a statement that I think Holder intended as encouraging. He knows these sequestration cuts, if they happen, are going to be permanent, right? I’m not too comfortable with Eric Holder saying we’ve got a few months before he swings open the doors at Arkham Asylum.
However, nearly all civil cases would have to be put on hold.
The Justice Department’s civil docket includes a number of cases charging banks with illegal — and often downright discriminatory — lending practices and the government’s big case charging Bank of America with defrauding Fannie and Freddie, helping to fuel the financial crisis. Not exactly chump cases for the segment of the population that got the short end of the financial shenanigans.
Things are worse for the Judiciary itself. We’ve already heard that D.C. Circuit Chief Judge Merrick Garland is none to thrilled with the idea of slashing his budget over this sequestration thing. Other courts are feeling the pinch, too. Chief Judge James F. Holderman of the Northern District of Illinois has suggested closing the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois for one day each week between January and September 2013. He wrote a letter to the Chicago legal community informing them of his plan to suspend criminal and civil trials on Wednesdays and furlough the court staff. He would also severely limit court supervision of defendants and those on probation.
Holderman asked the recipients of his letter to write about how the sequestration would burn them. Holderman’s crowdsourcing worked:
The Illinois State Bar Association said business interests would be harmed because a weekly court closure would disrupt “the normal flow of commerce in one of the nation’s most populous court districts.” The chief U.S. pretrial services officer for the Northern District of Illinois estimated that three in 10 sex offenders, as well as those with drug and alcohol addictions and mental health problems, would no longer receive treatment due to the reduced amount of court supervision. The Chicago Council of Lawyers warned broadly of a “highly deleterious impact on the quality of justice in our community.”
Not to besmirch Chicago, a city I actually love, but given that it’s kind of “murder-y” these days, cutting back on pretrial services seems to be inviting a a full transformation into something out of The Warriors.
All in all, the courts are expected to let go of some 5,400 staff on top of the 1,100 positions already planned to be eliminated.
And we’ve not even gotten to all the “constitutional problems” with these cuts…