The federal judiciary is not very good at keeping track of its money. So says a Government Accountability Office report released in November.
The judiciary “does not fully know how much it has saved because it has not developed a reliable method for estimating cost savings achieved,” the GAO report says of a cost containment plan that began in 2005.
The GAO made its findings in the wake of the 2013 shutdown of the federal government and congressionally mandated government-wide spending limits, known as sequestration. The GAO also looked at cost containment efforts since 2005 plan began. It found the courts reported saving that did not come for its cutback effort. The judiciary also did not always include the costs of implementing cuts. Nearly $1.5 billion in estimated savings the judges claimed did not include all the savings they actually realized. And lastly, savings claims were not always supported by documentation.
For example, the estimated $538 million in savings from lowered costs of space and facilities, actually included $291 million that was the result of lower than expected rent increases, the GAO said.
During fiscal year 2014, the judiciary’s budget totaled $7.3 billion and it obligated about $7.1 billion, the GAO said.
The largest costs, are staff salaries and expenses, along with the cost of paying public defenders, and court security. About 73 percent of the budget, $5.2 billion, goes to personnel pay and benefits for the trial and appeals courts and 14 percent, or $986 million, goes to public defender services.
When broken out by classification, about 16 percent goes to rent for courthouses paid to the General Services Administration.
One of the most significant effects of the 2013 government shutdown was the continuing loss of court staff through attrition, including buyouts and voluntary early retirements, the GAO said.
In the year following the sequestration, the courts lost 1,600 staff, or roughly 8 percent. In the two years of flat funding preceding the sequestration, the total number of full-time court staff declined by more than 11 percent in circuit courts, 8 percent in district court clerks’ offices and 24 percent in bankruptcy courts.
By March 2014, there were 3,300 – 15 percent – fewer court staff than in July 2011.
Only two circuits out of 12 imposed personnel layoffs, the D.C. Circuit and the Chicago-based Seventh Circuit.
Back in 2004, when the judiciary began its cost containment planning, implemented in 2005, it faced lower appropriations from Congress as part of an across-the-board cuts in government.
The judiciary lost 1,350 court staff, about 6 percent of its workforce, according to the GAO. Expecting the cutbacks to continue, the judiciary began planning for cost containments. They instituted new measures to determine needed staffing levels and reduced the size of salary step increases from 2 percent to .75 percent in 2007.
In an effort to cut the total space it need to rent by 3 percent by 2018, one suggestion was to have probation officers work remotely and share office space.
The courts planned to increase use of video conferencing to reduce travel time.
The GAO did find reliable the court’s calculation of $785 million in salary savings and staff reductions.
In addition, the estimated $89 million in savings from technology initiatives did not capture all the savings. The GAO estimated it at $126 million.