MANHATTAN (CN) - Deep budget cuts to the federal courts pose a "grave" risk to due process, public safety and the world economy, the chiefs of 88 federal courts warned.
Chief U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska, of New York's Southern District, wrote the Friday letter to Sen. Chuck Schumer, which spells out the likely consequences of the $350 million shortfall federal courts around the country are expecting to face because of so-called sequestration.
Another 87 fellow chief federal judges signed the eight-page letter, which asks the senior senator from New York to take the lead in urging Congress to restore funding for the courts to its pre-sequester level.
The cuts already have stymied the Federal Defenders of New York, the letter notes. Though the group already operates on a skeleton crew of fewer than 15 attorneys, its staff now faces mandatory furloughs
that have delayed the trial of Osama bin Laden's son-in-law Sulaiman Abu Ghayth.
U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan, who is presiding over Abu Ghayth's trial in Manhattan, called the predicament "stunning" this past April.
"It's extremely troublesome to contemplate the possibility of a case of this nature being delayed because of sequestration," Kaplan said. "Let's just leave it at that."
Preska warned that a trial delay of this nature "dims the memories of witnesses and makes some more difficult to find, thus complicating the government's ability to prove its case."
"Delays are also unfair to the defendants, who deserve to have their cases adjudicated as quickly as possible to avoid, among other things, reputational damage from long-pending charges and prolonged pretrial detention at the expense of their freedom (and taxpayer money)," she added (parentheses in original).
Preska also noted that the furloughs wind up draining the public fisc by forcing federal defenders to offload clients to more expensive Criminal Justice Act attorneys.
"As David E. Patton, the attorney-in-charge of the Federal Defenders of New York, has said: 'You simply can't sequester the Sixth Amendment,'" the letter states.
The cuts also have forced probation officers to spend more time on administrative tasks and less time monitoring violent offenders and providing treatment to those with drug addition and mental illness, the letter states.
Last week, the Executive Committee of the Judicial Conference announced
that it would have to reduce fees for public defenders by $15 an hour.
Preska notes that the cases in her federal district have major implications for the world economy.
"Well-recognized mega cases like Lehman Brothers, Chrysler, General Motors Corporation, Enron, WorldCom, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Hostess Brands, Eastman Kodak, MF Global, Dynergy, and Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC were all filed in the Southern District's Bankruptcy Court," the letter states. "In fact, half of the forty largest public-company filings ever made under Chapter 11, the part of the bankruptcy code used for corporate restructurings and the chapter of choice for large corporate filings, were brought in the Southern District."
Sequestration has led Manhattan's Bankruptcy Court to lay off 30 percent of its staff and now closes its doors at 5 p.m., Preska wrote.
Likewise, the clerk's office at Preska's court has lost 40 positions, including eight jobs in the records department, according to the letter.
"In order to retain the staff we have, we shifted funds from, for example, information technology and maintenance," the letter states. "While we might slide by this year without a catastrophic incident, aging IT equipment is a recipe for disaster, especially as we continue to eliminate costly paper communications."
Sequestration is penny-wise, pound-foolish here as well because IT investments would save money and manpower in the long run, Preska wrote.
Sen. Schumer's office did not immediately return a request for comment.