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Fiscal cliff spending cuts pose problems for courts

By: Mike Murphy//December 17, 2012

Fiscal cliff spending cuts pose problems for courts

By: Mike Murphy//December 17, 2012

Plunging headlong off the so-called fiscal cliff not only spells problems for homeowners and businesses, but the local legal community is warning of the severe consequences on the court system, as well.

At the end of the year, mandatory spending cuts could kick in at a time when the federal government needs to raise money to address the national debt. Money authorized for federal programs in this sense would be sequestered because it cannot be spent.

Should Democratic and Republican lawmakers be unable to reach a deal by Dec. 31 — and that did not appear likely heading into the weekend — the court system’s budget would be slashed by 8.2 percent, or more than $500 million, effective Jan. 2, according to the New York State Bar Association.

The cuts would not be spread out evenly across the judicial budget, and 40 to 60 percent of the various courts’ discretionary budgets would bear the brunt.

The result would be more costly delays in court cases, job cuts and/or furloughs, and reductions in court hours because of cutbacks on security.

Cuts could mean delays in resolution of business disputes and result in more legal costs, further limiting the state’s economic climate. But, the spending cuts also would hamper legal services for the needy.

The Legal Services Corporation’s budget would drop $29 million in addition to the significant cuts it has already suffered in recent years.

Connie O. Walker

Monroe County Bar Association President Connie O. Walker said the impact locally would be significant. Such action would limit federal court operations and limit access to justice for the poorest and neediest members of the community, Walker said.

The Monroe County Legal Assistance Center of Western New York and Volunteer Legal Services Project receive federal funding from the LSC.

Walker is one of several bar presidents across the state who signed a letter informing the state congressional delegation of the consequences.

Sequestration’s draconian cuts would undermine confidence in the legal system, according to Seymour W. James Jr., NYSBA president.

“Sequestration’s cuts to the Legal Services Corporation would affect our most vulnerable New Yorkers — the poor, war veterans, domestic violence victims and broken families —by severely limiting their ability to have their disputes resolved through the legal system,” James said in a statement.

The establishment of a justice system was at the forefront of our founding fathers’ plans, said Bryan D. Hetherington, chief counsel of the Empire Justice Center, who also urged that a deal be reached.

“All spending is not equally valuable,” Hetherington said.

Leaders had not come to an agreement as of Friday, although some, including Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-Fairport, have said a deal is likely before the deadline.

“We are truly hopeful that reasonable minds will prevail in reaching an agreement that heeds the voices of the American citizenry,” Walker said.


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