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Originally published Wednesday, March 27, 2013 at 8:04 PM

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Federal public defenders victims of automatic cuts

The sequestration budget hatchet is about to land at the federal courthouse in Seattle.

Seattle Times political reporter

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@ It's time to force Congress to go on mandatory furloughs with pay cuts. Congress... MORE
It's time to force Congress to go on mandatory furloughs with pay cuts. MORE
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The sequestration budget hatchet is about to land at the federal courthouse in Seattle.

On Friday, federal public defenders will shutter their offices for the first in a series of unpaid furloughs through September.

And federal prosecutors may not be far behind — they’ve been served with notice that up to 14 days of furloughs could begin next month.

The public-defender furloughs are among the first to hit federal workers locally as a result of the $85 billion in automatic spending cuts prompted by partisan political gridlock in Washington, D.C.

The sequestration was set in motion in 2011 by President Obama and Congress to create pressure for a deficit-reduction compromise. The automatic spending cuts were said to be so draconian and ill-planned that politicians would never let them happen.

But no deal was reached and the cuts are starting to kick in this month. While mandatory programs like Medicare and welfare benefits are exempt, federal agencies are now under orders to cut as much as 8 percent of their budgets between now and the end of the fiscal year in September.

Tom Hillier, who heads the federal public-defenders office for Western Washington, said Friday’s furloughs will mark the first time the office has closed due to budget shortfalls since it opened in 1975.

Congress and federal agencies have moved to delay or avert furloughs for some parts of the government this year — federal prison guards for example, will be exempted.

But Hillier said he expects no budget reprieve for his office, which represents poor people charged with federal crimes. “Politically we don’t have any punch,” he said.

The every-other-Friday furloughs will mean a 10 percent pay cut for the 56 full-time employees, including 20 attorneys, at the defenders’ office, Hillier said. That’s on top of two years without pay increases for federal employees.

U.S. District Chief Judge Marsha Pechman, who has been wrestling with how to keep the federal courts running smoothly amid cuts, requested that Hillier’s office spread out their furloughs instead of closing the defenders’ office entirely every other Friday.

But Hillier refused, saying such “rolling furloughs” would be “wholly unworkable” for his office, creating scheduling confusion, morale problems and potentially harming their clients.

Pechman said she is worried about the effect of cuts throughout the federal judicial system. Already the court is down 18 probation workers from two years ago. Money for drug treatment also has been slashed.

But conservative budgeting over the past few years has allowed the court to avoid furloughs or occasional courthouse closures elsewhere due to the sequestration.

“I’m telling you we’re shaking down the couch for quarters,” Pechman said. “Right now I don’t have any wiggle room in my budget.”

It’s not yet clear how sequestration cuts will hit federal prosecutors locally.

Questions about cuts were referred by U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan’s office to the Justice Department in Washington, D.C.

A Justice Department spokeswoman pointed to furlough notices that have been sent to all 115,000 department employees. Assistant U.S. attorneys were notified they could be furloughed starting April 21.

In a memo last week, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said the sequester would force Justice Department budget cuts totaling $1.6 billion — a 9 percent cut over the remaining seven months of the fiscal year.

That would mean the department will be able to handle 1,600 fewer civil cases and 1,000 fewer criminal cases across the country, Holder’s memo said.

The Federal Bar Association has said the cuts in the federal judicial system could jeopardize public safety and the courts’ ability to carry out their constitutional duties.

“People should care because the bedrock of American justice relies upon the prompt decision making by the courts in the settling of disputes,” said Bruce Moyer, counsel for government relations for the association.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628

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