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Dem Sen. Peter Welch Blasts Possible Public Defender Cuts

Sep 13, 2023

Years before coming to Congress, Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vt., was a public defender, and now he’s raising the alarm about proposed cuts by the House and Senate to the federal public defender system, which he calls a “bedrock requirement” of the American judicial system.

Over 90% of federal defendants get court-appointed counsel, and due to uncertainty of fiscal year 2024 funding, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts has already implemented a hiring freeze starting July 13, with limited exceptions. The predicament is due to a bill passed in June to avoid a debt default that imposed hard spending caps, according to lawmakers on the appropriations committees.

The junior senator from Vermont told Law360 in an interview in his office on Tuesday that “competent counsel” for both the prosecution and defense is “the heart of the credibility of our criminal justice system.”

Therefore, “you can’t take away access to competent public defense without really compromising the integrity of the system,” he said.

The House and Senate versions of the Financial Services and General Government appropriations bill that were reported out of committee on July 13 would, respectively, allot $1.41 billion and $1.38 billion for defender services, a freeze from fiscal year 2023 levels, leadership from the Judicial Conference wrote to lawmakers on July 28, while also sharing concerns on prospective cuts to salaries and expenses for the courts and court security.

These levels are below the judicial branch’s request of $1.53 billion by $122 million and $150 million, respectively, and “due to a decrease in offsetting prior year balances, would actually fund the Defender Services program below the FY 2023 financial plan obligation level,” the letter continued.

If the cuts were just applied to federal defender office staff, there would be a 9% decrease under the House bill and a 12% decrease under the Senate bill. Or if the cuts were applied to the private-practice attorneys who are appointed by the courts, the payments would have to be suspended in July 2024 under the House version and in June 2024 under the Senate version, according to the Judicial Conference.

Welch — who previously voiced his concerns during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing last week  said federal public defenders have an important role and aren’t always popular since they don’t get to pick their clients.

Also, Welch believes it could ultimately be more expensive for the government if the cuts are implemented because they would then have to hire private attorneys on a contract basis.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, vice chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee and a recipient of the letter, wrote in a response on Aug. 28 shared with Law360 that the “most significant constraint” is the Fiscal Responsibility Act, which prevented the government’s first-ever debt default and set discretionary spending caps for fiscal year 2024 and fiscal year 2025 — caps the White House is now blasting House Republicans for not abiding by.

She also said budget negotiations are ongoing and hopes Congress can direct additional funding to the federal courts.

The office of Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., chair of the Senate Appropriations Financial Services and General Government panel, told Law360 the senator “strongly supports this program,” while also noting the budget constraints.

“Republicans have made it clear — the fiscal year 2024 House appropriations bills are more about appeasing a small, but willful, right-wing faction than funding the government and providing the American people with essential resources they deserve,” Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government, told Law360 in a statement.

“This failure to adequately fund the Federal Defenders Office is yet another example of House Republicans’ hypocrisy — the supposed party of law and order once again fails to support the men and women who work to keep our communities safe and our judicial system operational,” Hoyer added.

The other lawmakers, Democrats and Republicans, who are in leadership roles on the appropriations committees, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

–Additional reporting from Daniel Wilson, Stephen K. Cooper and David van den Berg. Editing by Philip Shea.

Story Written by Courtney Buble, Law360

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