Thursday, September 18, 2014

Guam - In the face of looming budget cuts and further threats of federal sequestration, some offices under the federal government in Guam may have to cut critical services from already tightened budgets.

The District Court of Guam, the Federal Public Defender’s Office and the US Probation Office of Guam are urging Congress to restore funding or they may no longer be able to carry out their statutory responsibilities under the US Constitution.

Chief District Court Judge Frances Tydingco-Gatewood held an unusual press conference this afternoon urging Congress to rethink its budget cut proposals. Judge Gatewood said the federal judiciary is in desperate need of additional funding or it may not be able to carry out its constitutional responsibilities.

"The main thing that we’re asking the legislative leaders in Washington DC is to avoid any more sequestration and funding cuts to the Federal Judiciary nationwide as I’ve indictaed 87 of 94 judges have proceeded forward and written this letter," says Judge Gatewood.

The lawyer representative for Guam to the 9th Circuit Court, Rodney Jacob, also spoke at the news conference stressing the importance of avoiding further cuts, noting that the affected agencies have already made necessary cuts.

"The courts have done its job. The courts have tightened its belt. The Federal Public Defender’s office has tightened its belt. Probation Office has tightened its belt. This is not an issue of, 'Can we do more?'" notes Jacob. "It cannot undergo another cut."

The agency most affected is the Federal Public Defender’s Office. Acting Federal Public Defender Leilani Lujan explains what her office has had to endure over the last fiscal year.

"Resources for training, investigation, travel, witnesses, like expert witnesses, and also interpreter services have been cut and also significantl furloughs, which are forced unpaid days off, have been implemented," she emphasizes. "Our office also endured furloughs and another big impact of the sequester and budget cuts is that we have been forced to retire our only investigator."

Lujan also alluded to a sense of inequity that could be felt from Congress. While Congress is proposing to slash the budgets of federal defender agencies, on the other hand, the Senate Committee for Appropriations has approved hundreds of millions of dollars in increased funding for federal law enforcement agencies.

"In particular the US Attorneys [Office] has been approved for a $79 million increase. FBI has been approved for a $368 million increase, ATF $100 million increase, and DEA an increase of $68 million," she remarks. "Meanwhile, the federal defenders are being slashed to the bone."

The end result, adds Lujan, is that more criminal cases will be filed while those who provide defense counseling services will be burdened with increased caseloads per attorney. And a perfect example of that could be found right here on Guam. The US Attorneys Office has 11 attorneys--a stark contrast to the Federal Public Defender’s Office, which only has two.

"We also have not made major office purchases, we have had no equipment upgrades, no pay raises and for the early part of this year our Federal Public Defender John Gorman handled all the cases by himself for a period of four months," says Lujan.

Furthermore, Chief Deputy Clerk Chuck White says the cuts have put the judiciary back nine years and 25 percent of its staff lost over the last five years.

"To contextualize it in terms of the broader judiciary this fiscal year, fiscal year 2013 we suffered a--our allotment was 14 percent less than full requirements and that put us back to the year 2004 in terms of budget," he says.

Judge Tydingco-Gatewood has written to Congresswoman Madeleine Bordallo urging her support. Bordallo has responded saying that she is working with her colleagues to find a permanent solution to sequestration.