Government spending cuts could disrupt the federal court system in Omaha because employees would be furloughed in the Public Defender's Office and, potentially, in the U.S. Attorney's Office.
Attorneys and judges say they're concerned that the cuts, called sequestration, will affect their ability to prosecute, defend and sentence people who face federal criminal charges.
“We have an obligation to provide the best possible representation to our clients,” said David Stickman, the federal public defender whose office plans to furlough all 25 of its employees for 11 days after April 19. “They're reducing our budgets considering the work we do, and that's unfair to our clients.”
Some offices, such as the U.S. Attorney's Office, will avoid job furloughs if Congress and the president reach an agreement that halts sequestration. Even so, the office could have to close for one day per pay period, or two days a month. The Public Defender's Office will definitely close for one day per pay period through the end of the year.
Regardless of what happens, the federal courthouse will remain open, having avoided furloughs by not filling open positions. But even though it will stay open, it's unclear whether trials could be held if neither prosecutors nor defense attorneys are there.
“There are concerns,” said U.S. District Judge Laurie Smith Camp. “It's our plan to keep our courts open, and we are going to be meeting with the U.S. Attorney's Office, the federal public defender and the U.S. marshals to talk about how we can best serve the public.”
Stickman said he must cut $200,000 from his salary and benefits budget with or without sequestration, under orders from the U.S. Office of Defender Services in Washington. That budget will go from $4.1 million to $3.9 million, he said.
Last year the Office of Defender Services also cut Stickman's budget and that of federal public defenders nationwide, he said. Those cuts came in the form of payments for expert witnesses, travel and cars — all things that are hard to do without in representing defendants, Stickman said.
The furloughs will affect all 25 of his employees, who work in Omaha and Lincoln.
“The only area we had any room to move in was salaries and benefits,” he said.
If federal prosecutors are required to take furloughs, they would go into effect after April 21.
U.S. Attorney Deborah Gilg said she hopes that a sequestration deal occurs and that her office is spared.
The U.S. Attorney's Office, which employs about 70, has a regular budget of about $5.5 million but also routinely collects millions in fines and fees owed to the federal government.
“When our doors are open, we more than pay for yourselves,” Gilg said. “If you're furloughing people, it could interrupt pending investigations. But we remain hopeful.”
Gilg said it wasn't yet clear how much money the furloughs would save.
The government's automatic budget cuts were never meant to be.
In 2011, as part of a deal to raise the federal debt ceiling and avoid default, Congress named a supercommittee to find ways to shrink annual budget deficits. Lawmakers set up the automatic budget cuts, figuring they were so onerous that the supercommittee would be sure to agree on an alternative.
It didn't. Several attempts since then to devise alternatives have failed, with President Barack Obama and the Republicans disagreeing on how much to cut spending versus raising taxes.
Friday, the cuts began taking effect.
It was unclear how much the sequestration would affect federal law enforcement agencies in Omaha, such as the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Nationally, the sequestration would cut the FBI's budget by $550 million. According to the agency's website, those cuts likely will come from furloughs across the country.
In a Feb. 1 letter from Attorney General Eric Holder to Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., Holder wrote that the FBI cuts would be the equivalent to closing three of the bureau's largest field offices: Chicago, Miami and Baltimore.
The sequestration's $60 million in ATF cuts would “significantly increase risks to public safety and ATF's ability to respond to emerging violent crime threats,” Holder wrote.
Smith Camp, who oversees the federal courthouse in Omaha, said she cut her budget from $10.7 million to about $10 million by not filling positions created by attrition. Many employees are consequently juggling a bigger workload, she said.
“People are performing many job functions outside of their normal job duties,” she said. “No furloughs is a relief to the staff we have onboard. But they are working very hard and have been in preparation for this.”
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