Chief Justice Prods Congress to Resolve Budget Talks and Control National Debt

December 31, 2012
Chief Justice Prods Congress to Resolve Budget Talks and Control National Debt
WASHINGTON — Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. used his year-end report on the federal judiciary to give Congressional budget negotiators a little nudge.

“Our country faces new challenges, including the much-publicized ‘fiscal cliff’ and the longer-term problem of a truly extravagant and burgeoning national debt,” he wrote. “No one seriously doubts that the country’s fiscal ledger has gone awry. The public properly looks to its elected officials to craft a solution.”

The chief justice said that his branch of the government provided an example of doing much with few resources. The federal judiciary makes do with a budget appropriation of about $7 billion, he wrote, “a mere two-tenths of 1 percent of the United States’ total budget of $3.7 trillion.”

“Yes,” he went on, “for each citizen’s tax dollar, only two-tenths of one penny goes toward funding the entire third branch of government!”

In the report, Chief Justice Roberts said the judiciary was doing what it could to cut costs in rent, salaries and computer services. The Supreme Court “continues to set a good example,” he said, asking for a smaller appropriation in the last fiscal year than in the previous one. This fiscal year, the request rose slightly, “largely in response to new judicial security needs,” he said. He did not elaborate.

An appendix to the chief justice’s report on the workload of the federal courts showed decreases in the Supreme Court’s docket and in the number of cases it is deciding. In the term that ended last year, the number of requests for Supreme Court review dropped by almost two percent from the previous term. The justices issued just 64 signed opinions in the most recent term, down from 75.

The federal courts went to great lengths last year in trying circumstances, notably after Hurricane Sandy. “As just one example,” he said, “the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York conducted emergency hearings in Lower Manhattan the day after the storm hit, working in a building without heat or hot water that was only sparsely lit by gas-fueled emergency generators.” Though Chief Justice Roberts did not say so, the Supreme Court also showed fortitude the day the storm hit, hearing arguments when the rest of official Washington was closed.

He called on President Obama and Congress “to be especially attentive to the needs of the judicial branch and provide the resources necessary to its operation.”

“Because the judiciary has already pursued cost containment so aggressively, it will become increasingly difficult to economize further without reducing the quality of judicial services,” he wrote. “Virtually all of the judiciary’s core functions are constitutionally and statutorily required. Unlike executive branch agencies, the courts do not have discretionary programs they can eliminate or projects they can postpone.”

The number of judicial vacancies does not help matters, he went on. “At the close of 2012, 27 of the existing judicial vacancies are designated as presenting judicial emergencies,” he wrote. “I urge the executive and legislative branches to act diligently in nominating and confirming highly qualified candidates to fill those vacancies.”


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