By MATT REYNOLDS
(CN) – Sequestration has forced a $15 fee reduction for court-appointed defense lawyers for the first time since the Criminal Justice Act was passed in 1964, the U.S. judiciary said.
As chairman of the U.S. Judicial Conference, 4th Circuit Chief Judge William Traxler said in a two-page letter that “dire fiscal circumstances” have led to the fee reduction for private lawyers who provide legal representation to the poor.
Traxler said the emergency move is necessary to avoid “permanent damage” to the federal defender’s program, and is temporary and unsustainable.
Rates for noncapital cases are cut from $125 an hour to $110. For capital cases, attorneys will see rates reduced from $170 an hour to $164 an hour.
The measures will save defender services roughly $49.8 million over the fiscal years 2014 and 2015, and will lighten the load on full-time defenders already hit with furloughs and layoffs, according to the letter.
The conference’s executive committee said it will defer into 2015 up to four weeks of panel attorneys’ fees it normally would have paid in 2014.
“Measures of this kind, however, are not sustainable in the long term, and certainly would not be required if the judiciary were receiving an appropriate level of funding in this [federal defender services] account,” Traxler wrote.
The letter is addressed to U.S. District Judge Catherine Blake and dated Friday, but the judiciary waited til Monday to make the announcement.
Michael Nachmanoff, the federal public defender for the Eastern District of Virginia, said the executive committee had made a “difficult decision” that nevertheless averts a “catastrophe.”
Federal defenders’ offices had already cut costs by 10 percent, Nachmanoff said. He noted that sequestration would have forced federal defenders to cut one-third to one-half of their employees in the next fiscal year.
“This decision while it is painful, has allowed the federal defender’s program to survive in 2014,” Nachmanoff said in an interview.
“But they are not escaping unscathed,” Nachmanoff added. “We stand with the CJA [Criminal Justice Act] panel and we will fight for funding for the CJA panel and for federal defenders. Congress has the power to fix this problem and provide adequate funding for all indigent defense.”
He said the decision to reduce rates is a “shared sacrifice” that allows federal defenders to “fight another day.”
“Now it’s Congress’ turn to stand up and do what’s needed for the courts,” he said.
The announcement comes as 87 federal court judges last week warned congressional leaders that another year of sequestration on top of flat funding could devastate the United States justice system.
Front and center was the $50 million shortfall for the defender services account. Full-time defenders had already been forced to lay off or furlough staff, and the courts had increased deferred payments to court-appointed attorneys.
That places a strain on the judiciary’s constitutional duty to provide lawyers for the poor, the judges said.
The judiciary is absorbing its share of $85 billion in sequestration cuts under the Budget Control Act. Passed after the 2011 debt ceiling showdown, the sequester was sold as a stopgap after President Barack Obama and Republican lawmakers failed to reach a deficit-reduction agreement.
The judiciary needs to make up some of the $350 million in budget cuts to the federal court system. Appropriations committees in the House of Representatives and the Senate have respectively approved $465 million and $363 million funding increases for the fiscal year 2014.