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Jurists and Practitioners Weigh Impact as Sequestration Hits the Courts

Sequestration Hits the Courts

September 20, 2013

Sequestration is crippling the federal judiciary and undermining the constitutional rights of many, federal judges and federal defenders said during a panel discussion on Sept. 19.

Judge D. Brooks Smith of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit said sequestration has prompted a crisis that exceeds any struggles the judiciary has faced in his 25 years on the federal bench.

Smith said that public safety and the constitutional right to a speedy trial are among the items that hang in the balance.

“This is not Chicken Little’s rhetoric,” Smith added.

Calling the impact of sequestration “astounding,” Nina Carpiniello Spizer, assistant trial unit chief for the Office of the Federal Defender in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania said “it affects the entire system of justice. Judges suffer. The court system suffers and victims are suffering.”

Richard Coughlin, the federal public defender for the District of New Jersey, said cutbacks in funding have forced layoffs and reduced resources to conduct investigations or hire experts, all of which affects the representation of clients.

Delayed cases prolong imprisonment, which is unjust for those who have not been tried and costly for taxpayers, Coughlin said.

Professor Tuan Samahon of the Villanova University School of Law blamed the crisis largely on Congress for failing to cut spending on Social Security, veteran’s benefits, Medicaid and other programs.

Samahon said the judiciary is being unfairly punished by other branches of government.

Judge C. Darnell Jones of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania turned to scores of law students who packed the classroom and said that they, too, face consequences. Those who get highly coveted jobs in the federal system of justice face the prospect of layoffs.

The crisis may prompt lawmakers to take another look at mandatory sentencing laws that diverted criminal matters from the state courts to the federal system and at death penalty statutes that are especially costly to prosecute, Jones observed.

Calling the federalization of street crime “an easy political sell for politicians,” Smith said that “anyone who likes federalism should be offended by the prospect of moving drug cases to federal court just because you can scare the hell out of someone with the threat of a federal prosecution.”

With more than 2,500 positions in the judiciary eliminated since July 2012 and many more are at risk, Smith said the growing crisis is of grave concern.

“I have been disappointed that there has not been more outrage,” Smith said, praising the law school, the American Constitution Society and the Federalists Society for sponsoring the event.