After a cost containment summit held last fall, the Judicial Conference of the United States, met again earlier this month to approve a series of money saving initiatives.
10 days ago, the conference agreed to ask congress to approve legislation that would drop some of the duplicative procedures or requirements for pretrial and probation services. One of those services is the expensive electronic monitoring system. If more restrictive measures are in place, such as a halfway house or treatment facility and are part of the release order, those services would be used instead.
Also discussed was the possible closure of about 60 of the federal courthouses. The need to look in this direction this stems from the stagnated funding levels for these facilities. According to the Judicial Conference, funding has been virtually unchanged for three years even as operating costs have gone up. The conference pointed out that, already courts have cut their staffing levels by 5%, but still need to explore other cost saving measures.
Judge Julia Gibbons, who is the chair of the budget committee, told the conference, “The Judiciary is on the cusp of a financial crisis of significant proportions, one that I believe we can assuage somewhat if we are willing to take bold and unprecedented action.”
“We recognize that making these decisions will not be easy, and may result in less than optimal results. But the fiscal situation likely will require us to make difficult choices,” Judge Gibbons told the Conference. “The alternative is the increasing likelihood that the Judiciary will lose thousands of additional court support staff, which will fundamentally and negatively impact the core work of judges, the courts, and the Judiciary.”
As many as 60 of the 674 federal courthouses are at risk of closing their doors. many of those that are being considered are in the rural areas of America. Initially, 10 of the most likely to be closed are in the southern states and eastern seaboard.
But, three of the other fifty being eyed for closure are in Alaska. The main reason those courthouses are being eyed is because they do not have a resident judge. The practice of reviewing courthouses of that catagory has been in place since 1997. Judges travel to the alternate locations on an as needed basis.
Fred Triem, who works as an attorney in Southeast Alaska, said while he likes the idea of saving money, the closures could mean hardship for people who have federal court business and no federal court. Treim went on to say:
“If you’re a poor person in Juneau, Alaska, and there’s no federal court building, then how are you going to have your bankruptcy hearing?” he asked yesterday. “Are you going to have to pay your travel to go to Anchorage when you don’t even have enough money to pay your electric bill?”
Alaska’s Senators Lisa Murkowski and Mark Begich weighed in on the issue of possible courthouse closures in Alaska.
Senator Murkowski said in a statement:
“I can see why a few courthouses in an average-sized state can be reconsidered and possibly eliminated for cost. But Alaska is one-fifth the size of the entire country and sixty percent of our land is owned by the federal government, so leaving us with one active courthouse doesn’t add up.
“But it’s penny-wise, pound-foolish to remove three out of our four active courthouses and ask all Alaskans to travel to Anchorage for legal proceedings.
“The saying goes that ‘Justice delayed is justice denied.’ But it also shouldn’t have to be delivered over a thousand miles.”
When Senator Mark Begich learned that three of Alaska’s Federal Courthouses were under consideration in the discussion of possible closures, he released his comments in a statement, Begich had this to say:
“I’m all for cutting the federal budget and have proposed numerous proposals to do just that. But a proposal by the federal court system to close numerous court houses, including in Fairbanks, Ketchikan and Juneau, demands some answers. What’s the cost-savings, how many jobs are eliminated, and what’s the impact on residents who would have to drive hundreds of miles or buy an airline ticket to attend a court proceeding?
“It would be a disservice to Alaskans in these cities – to arbitrarily shut off their access to the federal courts. As this proposal continues being reviewed, I will do all I can to ensure that Alaskans are not mistreated by an ill-conceived idea.”
Senator Murkowski pointed out in a letter to Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge Alex Kozinski and Chief Judge Ralph Beistline of the U.S. District Court in Alaska, that closure of the courthouses in Alaska would not net very substantial savings because of location circumstances. That letter can be read here.