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Federal courts seek more money and judges in next COVID-19 bill

Request includes funding for cleaning and health screening at courthouses

The E. Barrett Prettyman United States Courthouse in Washington.
The E. Barrett Prettyman United States Courthouse in Washington. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The federal courts asked Congress for an additional $36.6 million and more judge positions in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, for safety and to handle the backlog of cases that will be delayed until after it is safe to restart regular court operations.

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts and the U.S. Judicial Conference sent appropriators the supplemental funding request and 17 legislative proposals last week, but publicly released the letter on Tuesday.

“The underlying objective behind each proposal is to ensure that the federal Judiciary continues to meet its constitutional mandate while protecting the health and safety of court personnel, litigants, and the public,” the letter states.

The funding requests include $15.1 million for enhanced cleaning of courthouses and $15 million for eight weeks of health screenings at courthouse entrances.

The courts also requested $11.2 million for information technology costs, $9.4 million for public defender services, $7.5 million for video conferencing equipment, $2.2 million for court security and $1.6 million for increased costs of supervising offenders released from prison or awaiting trial.

The judicial branch can offset $27.5 million of those salary and expenses costs through existing balances and projected savings from canceled travel and conferences, the administrative office wrote in the letter.

The request also includes a proposal to add seven district judge positions, and make eight temporary district judge positions into permanent spots.

“When the courts reconstitute after the COVID-19 pandemic, the strain will be even greater since there will be a backlog of cases that could not be adjudicated during the pandemic,” the letter states.

Two districts, the Eastern District of California and the District of Arizona, have declared judicial emergencies because of the COVID-19 outbreak, the letter states. The calendars there are so congested that judges are unable to meet certain statutory time limits to hear cases, and those time limits are suspended due to the anticipated backlog of cases.

The courts also want to make 14 temporary bankruptcy judge positions, set to expire in 2022 or 2024, into permanent spots, since the economic impact of the outbreak “in some respects exceeds that of the 2008 Great Recession.”

“The expected increase in bankruptcy reorganization cases, particularly in Delaware, will likely result in a significant workload increase as these cases often involve very complex and time-consuming matters that require extensive judicial resources,” the letter states.

Other proposals include changes to court functions for those in federal custody. Suggested provisions address changes to compassionate release procedures in a criminal justice overhaul law reducing pretrial detention of certain low-risk defendants, and allowing probation officers to focus on higher risk offenders.

“We ask that these provisions be included in the next supplemental appropriations bill or similar COVID-19 response legislation,” the letter states.

Congress put $7.5 million for the federal courts in the first COVID-19 related bill.

Under that first bill, the Supreme Court would get an additional $500,000 to “expand its capacity for staff to work remotely and continue mission critical activities,” while the rest of the federal courts would receive $6 million and federal public defenders would receive $1 million so they can work remotely to represent clients without disruption.

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