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Friday, Aug 01, 2014
Crime & Courts

Federal courts officials lobby Congress for budget help

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TAMPA — Federal court personnel who try to work late are finding themselves in darkened rooms because the lights automatically turn off to save money.

Federal law enforcement agents are unsure whether they can make arrests on some days because public defenders are furloughed and unable to represent suspects on Fridays in their initial court appearances.

Federal courthouses may close at 4 p.m. because of cuts to the budget of the U.S. Marshals Service, which provides security.

“The courts, the Middle District of Florida and elsewhere, are having to cannibalize our resources for having to do our job,” said U.S. District Judge Elizabeth A. Kovachevich. “What’s happening is we’re collapsing from the inside.”

Kovachevich on Wednesday orchestrated an unusual video conference presentation involving officials in three federal courthouses pleading their budget woes, hoping to have a receptive audience in Washington.

Staff members for senators Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio appeared on television screens from a darkened room in conditions that masked any reactions they may have had to the presenters. They made no comment during the conference. A second presentation planned for members of the House of Representatives was canceled because House members were involved in an emergency budget meeting, officials said.

Contacted for reaction, officials in Nelson’s and Rubio’s office issued statements about their opposition to the budget sequestration law, but no specific comment on the concerns of federal court officials.

“We’re well aware of what sequestration is causing,” said Nelson spokesman Ryan Brown in an email. “The solution is simple. The extremists have to stop holding up more targeted cuts that can replace the meat-clever across-the-board cuts.”

Rubio spokeswoman Brooke Sammon wrote, “Senator Rubio has always said that the sequester was a bad idea. The only way to solve our long-term deficit problems is to grow our economy, which will require entitlement reform and pro-growth tax reform, not tax hikes.”

For Kovachevich, who has been a federal judge for 31 years, the situation is dire. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” she said. “It says an awful lot about the courts’ willingness to work themselves to the bone and have these people put themselves in dangerous situations.”

She said pretrial services and probation, which monitors people who have been charged or convicted of federal offenses while they are free in the community, have no budget for mental health services.

U.S. District Judge Mary Scriven said citizens who serve on juries are facing greater inconvenience because shortened court days and court weeks mean they have to serve for longer periods of time and miss more work.

“So work harder and work longer, you might say,” Scriven said. “We tried that. The other day, my law clerk was working on a complicated civil matter and the lights went off in chambers. We tried to turn them back on. They wouldn’t come on. We called (the General Services Administration) and they said, ‘Well, we’ll keep the lights on till the end of September, but beginning in October, they’ll go out at 5:30 unless the court comes up with more money.’’’

Acting U.S. Attorney Lee Bentley and Federal Public Defender Donna Elm stood together at the podium to underscore that the budget cuts are hurting all aspects of the justice system.

“We’re all of one piece a large puzzle,” Bentley said, “and when one piece cannot be fit into place, the system breaks down.”

esilvestrini@tampatrib.com

813-259-7837

Twitter: @ElaineTBO

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