THE BLOG

What Price Justice?

10/15/2013 10:30 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

As the government budget gridlock grinds on, there has been considerable attention concerning its financial impact, with the sequester calculated as costing the economy more than 1.5 million jobs and the government shutdown estimated as costing the economy more than $150 million per day. However, few commentators have focused on the effect the sequester and the government shutdown are having on our constitutional obligation to do justice.

As the senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, that was the question posed at a forum I convened this week with some of the nation's leading experts on law and justice -- including the president of the American Bar Association, a retired federal judge, former Congressional and Justice Department staff, and representatives of public and legal defenders and non-profits.

We learned that the cost of the sequester and shutdown on the Department of Justice and the federal courts is grave and growing each and every day. The Department of Justice's funding was reduced last year by more than $1.6 billion, which has hindered their efforts to combat violent crime, to fund critical grant programs like Community Oriented Policing Services and Violence Against Women, to pursue financial fraud, and to prevent terrorism. As Scott Lilly, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress told us, the sequester means it is a good time to be a terrorist, a foreign intelligence officer, or to engage in consumer fraud.

The FBI and Bureau of Prisons are being hit particularly hard. At the FBI, new agents are no longer being trained, many investigations are not being opened on a timely basis, and criminal cases are being closed prematurely. We've even been told that agents are not being reimbursed for putting gas in their cars. In the coming months, as the toll of sequester accumulates, critical functions at the Bureau of Prisons will be stretched well beyond their limits, with possible physical harm to guards and even prison riots on the horizon.

According to James Silkenat, the President of the American Bar Association, our independent court system is very close to collapse as a result of the cumulative impact of the sequester and shutdown. Because federal judicial salaries are exempt from reduction, the cut backs for the rest of the court system are even more onerous. Among other things, the federal judiciary has been forced to curtail critical programs that supervise individuals in the community awaiting trial and that monitor those who have served their time and subsequently are released from prison on parole, which potentially jeopardizes public safety.

Beyond the specific impacts on funding and caseload, the sequester and shutdown are having an even more insidious effect on some of our nation's most sacred legal obligations. It is a shocking irony that 50 years after the Supreme Court's landmark decision in Gideon v. Wainwright -- guaranteeing indigent criminal defendants the right to counsel -- we are shirking this core constitutional commitment.

Last fiscal year the public defenders program -- funded by the federal courts -- incurred a 10 percent cut in needed funding resulting in over 17,000 furlough days. This year will be even worse, with the likely result being more wrongful convictions. As A.J. Kramer, the Federal Public Defender for the District of Columbia reminded us, the sequester and shutdown will ultimately cost the federal government far more money in the long term as appeals and retrials are processed for these defendants.

At the same time, the needless shutdown is eviscerating our commitment to civil rights, with over 70 percent of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division staff currently furloughed. That means the laws that protect the right to vote, protect access to fair housing, and prevent discrimination against the disabled are being largely unenforced. The nation celebrated the 50th Anniversary of Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech this summer, but now we are ignoring Dr. King's basic teachings of fairness and equality by allowing the shutdown -- and its devastating consequences for civil rights enforcement -- to continue.

Our courts, as a co-equal branch of government and the crown jewel of our democracy, deserve better. Indigent defendants did nothing to create the sequester, yet they are at risk of having their constitutional rights violated each and every day that this manufactured political crisis is allowed to fester. The victims of rape and abuse may know little of the Tea Party and political ultimatums, but they are being victimized yet again by the mindless shutdown.

Sequestration, government shutdown, and default are not mere political games, but involve real people, with real costs -- both practical and constitutional.