Updated: 04/12/2013 7:00 AM KSTP.com By: Mark Albert
The highest-ranking federal judge in Minnesota is warning that automatic budget cuts have hit with such force that it has caused "major devastation" to the judiciary, putting jobs, courthouses and justice in jeopardy and public safety "at risk."
In a rare television interview, Chief Judge of the District of Minnesota Michael J. Davis said the $350 million in sequestration cuts to the federal judiciary had resulted in a 15.7 percent cut to US court operations in the state.
"It is a major, major devastation to the judiciary," Davis said in his chambers Thursday. "Justice will be slowed down. Justice delayed is justice denied."
Davis is sounding the alarm about the impact the cuts are having after Congress failed to avert them.
The reductions are particularly painful, government officials say, because they are for a full fiscal year but only took effect March 1 - when appropriations for nearly half the year had already been spent.
The federal fiscal year begins annually on Oct. 1.
Already, the cuts to courts across the country have closed courthouses in San Francisco, furloughed staff in Los Angeles, and stopped criminal hearings on some days in New York, Washington, D.C., and Delaware, according to the Judicial Conference, the administrative arm of the courts.
At a congressional hearing in March on the effect of sequestration on the judiciary, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy warned representatives that, "at some point, if we start dismissing criminal prosecutions, this is dangerous to the rule of law."
Despite the warnings, now federal defenders may be on the chopping block next, drawing Davis's ire.
"We're cutting money from our defense system that will keep poor people from having attorneys represent them in the proper manner. And I'm not going to allow that to happen," he vowed.
When a reporter observed that he sounded mad, Davis responded, "I am. I'm extremely mad... I may have to go back to the old days and call the large law firms and have the named partners come down and represent people."
"I'm putting them on notice," said Davis.
Sen. Al Franken, who sits on the Senate's Judiciary Committee with Minnesota's other US Senator, Amy Klobuchar, said that Republicans and Democrats simply could not agree on how - or whether - to replace the automatic federal cuts known as the sequester.
"This isn't a partisan issue here," Franken said in an interview from Washington, D.C. this week."This is an issue about public safety, about justice."
Franken said there is no imminent deal to restore the money taken from the courts, which he believes are already stretched thin.
"We think that the Minnesota district has been a little overloaded anyway. Look, there are just better ways to address our deficit than to make extreme cuts to federal courts," said Sen. Franken.
When asked if he blamed Congress for the cuts now hitting federal courts in Minnesota, Chief Judge Davis accepted a measure of culpability.
"I hold myself responsible because... I feel that I failed, that I have not communicated to the public, that I have not communicated to our congressional leaders that the amount of money we're asking for, for the courts, is not very much and that you can't do straight across-the-board cuts for the third branch of government that has a very low budget."
The entire federal court system subsists on two-tenths of one percent of the entire $3.7 trillion US budget; put another way, as Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts did in his year-end report, "for each citizen's tax dollar, only two-tenths of one penny go toward funding the entire third branch of government!"
While no furloughs or courthouse closures are planned in Minnesota "at this time," Davis said, "I cannot guarantee anything after Oct. 1."
Fiscal year 2014, which begins Oct. 1, is "going to be a miserable year," he added.
In a statement, Sen. Amy Klobuchar said, in part, "I will continue to work with Democrats and Republicans on a balanced approach to reducing our debt that includes a mix of spending cuts and revenues and ensures our courts have the resources they need to do the people's businesses."
Cuts in Minnesota aren't just hitting federal courts.
On Thursday, the US Department of Justice told 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS that employees at the US Marshal's Service and US Attorney's office in Minnesota both face possible furloughs of up to 14 days this summer.
Only an emergency transfer of money stopped the Bureau of Prisons from starting furloughs already, according to a DOJ letter obtained by 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS.
Meanwhile, furlough notices have already been mailed to "nearly all" DOJ employees with key decisions coming later this month, the department said.
When the cuts first took effect last month, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Albert Lea had already released in the Twin Cities some inmates to save money.
After about 2,000 illegal immigrants were released nationwide, an uproar forced ICE to stop and find savings elsewhere.