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Justice Roberts slams budget cuts in annual report

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts blasted sequester budget cuts, urging Congress to restore funds or risk creating "a genuine threat to public safety."
John Roberts
U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts arrives to administer the oath of office to President Barack Obama at the White House on Jan. 20, 2013

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts harshly criticized the 2013 sequestration budget cuts in his year-end report released this week, urging Congress to help restore some of the lost funding to allow the courts "to discharge their responsibilities" in the face of "unprecedented challenges."

"The budget remains the single most important issue facing the courts," Roberts wrote in the annual report

"Let’s take a page from Dickens and Capra," he continued, invoking holiday classics A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life. "Let’s look at what has made our federal court system work in the past, what we are doing in the present to preserve it in an era of fiscal constraint, and what the future holds if the Judiciary does not receive the funding it needs." 

He reported that current cuts put in place by sequestration have forced his branch of government to drop staffing to level not seen since 1997,  and warned that a failure to restore at least some of the funds losts could pose "a genuine threat to public safety" along with "commercial uncertainty, lost opportunities, and unvindicated rights." 

Roberts further argued that the five percent across-the-board cuts that went into effect in March of last year had a greater impact on the judicial system than on much of the rest of the federal government. 

"The impact of the sequester was more significant on the courts than elsewhere in the government, because virtually all of their core functions are constitutionally and statutorily required," he wrote. "Unlike most Executive Branch agencies, the courts do not have discretionary programs they can eliminate or postpone in response to budget cuts."

Acknowledging that some of those cuts were restored in October, he pointed to the Judicial Conference's recent revised appropriation request of a little more than $7 billion as a fair compromise. 

“That amount strikes a fair balance,” he wrote. “It is $180 million less than the Judiciary’s original budget request (we were optimistic), $120 million less than the amount approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee in its version of the Judiciary’s spending bill, and only $13 million more than the amount approved by the House Appropriations Committee in its bill.”

He acknowledged the importance of trimming budgets across the federal government, and pointed to a series of actions the Judiciary had already taken towards that goal before the across-the-board cuts were mandated. He further highlighted the "tiny" amount of the budget the Judicial Branch consumes at this point. "just two-tenths of one percent of the federal government’s total outlays."