Supreme Court Justices Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer warned the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Thursday that automatic federal budget cuts will put the American public at risk and severely damage the ability of the third branch of government to do its job.
Sequestration, a series of automatic budget cuts that began March 1, will eventually reduce funding levels for the federal judiciary by 5 percent, or nearly $350 million. The justices painted a bleak picture, saying trials would be delayed, criminal offenders would face less supervision, court employees would be furloughed and laid off, and more innocent people could be convicted for crimes they did not commit.
Kennedy, the court's conservative-leaning swing vote, told members of Congress that the reduced funding will negatively affect the federal judiciary's ability to supervise criminals on probation.
"The federal courts routinely, day in and day out, supervise more people than are in the federal prison population," Kennedy said. "We supervise more than 200,000 criminal offenders, some of whom are very dangerous. If the Congress thinks that because of some automatic cuts this has to be cut back, you are doing a few things. Number one, you are putting the public safety at risk. Number two, you are undercutting the ability of a separate branch of government to do its functions."
Kennedy said the cuts are "simply unsustainable." He pointed out that the federal courts take up only .2 percent of the total federal budget.
Breyer, a member of the court's liberal wing, warned that cuts to federal defenders could eventually result in greater expense to society if people are convicted of crimes they did not commit because they were provided with inadequate counsel. Those people could appeal their decisions, costing federal courts more, he noted, while the person who actually committed the crime would still be on the streets.
"Eventually the courts will spend more time and effort considering his claim than it would have cost to give him a decent lawyer in the first place," Breyer said.
He added that money to maintain the courts' infrastructure is important because it signals to the world that the court system is functioning and fair.
"If someone comes into the courtroom and they see a column and there's a hole in it, and the inside is falling out into the floor, what do they think about justice in the United States?" Breyer asked. "Those things are symbols. They don't have to be grand ... but they do have to be kept up."