Federal budget cuts cost Kansas federal courthouses, prosecutors, defenders more than $750,000

Budget problems are nothing new for Kansas courthouses, where state and county courts have had to close their doors at times when money ran out. But this year, the pinch is being felt in the federal courts.

The automatic, across-the-board budget cuts, commonly known as “the sequester,” that took affect Friday will cost the federal courts in Kansas hundreds of thousands of dollars this year, not counting cuts to federal prosecutors and public defenders. That means some criminal cases in Kansas won’t be prosecuted this year, and Kansans facing federal charges will have to wait longer to see a court-appointed lawyer, according to a statement Monday from Judge Julia Gibbons, budget committee chairwoman for the U.S. Judicial Conference, which governs the U.S. Courts.

The three federal courthouses in Wichita, Topeka and Kansas City, Kan., will lose $750,000 in the sequester this year, which is 14 percent of their budget, said Tim O’Brien, the court clerk in Topeka. Court staff are still working out how to minimize the effect on the public by spending less on things like office supplies, but most of the court’s budget goes to employee salaries.

“It’s a fairly dramatic cut,” O’Brien said. “Chopping off a large percentage really does have an effect on us.”

Douglas County courts won’t lose any money immediately, since they don’t receive regular federal funding, said Douglas County District Court Judge Robert Fairchild. But there may be an indirect effect.

“To the extent that the sequester affects funding received by the state and county, we could suffer from the trickle down,” Fairchild said.

The Douglas County court has been unsuccessful in past applications for a federal grant to support a domestic violence court, Fairchild said, and a tightening of federal budgets won’t help its chances in the immediate future.

At the same time, federal prosecutors and public defenders in Kansas and elsewhere have been warned of budget cuts, furloughs and delays in pay. They are funded separately from the Kansas courthouses, by the Department of Justice and the federal judiciary, and exact figures for cuts to their budgets in Kansas aren’t available yet, according to a statement from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Those cuts will be spread across individual districts over time, but they will all likely be affected as funding to federal prosecutors in general is cut by $100 million, and furloughs are expected across the department starting April 21. At least 1,000 criminal cases won’t be prosecuted this year, the department said, and 1,600 civil cases won’t be handled.

The Kansas Federal Public Defender Office in Wichita did not return calls for comment on the cuts, but the judicial conference’s statement said people charged with federal crimes in all the nation’s districts may find it harder to defend themselves. The Kansas office may have fewer attorneys available, which could mean delays in appointing defense attorneys. And those lawyers may have to wait for several weeks to be paid.

Federal courts in Kansas are in better shape to weather the sequester than are some other agencies, O’Brien said. There are no plans to furlough courthouse employees, and most people visiting the courts may not see the difference immediately.

“For the most part, we believe that we’ll be able to survive this,” he said. “We’re hoping that Congress will reach some kind of agreement.”