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Associated Press, Published August 05 2013

Minn. federal court officials fear budget cuts

ST. PAUL — Federal courts officials in Minnesota say they're worried automatic spending cuts will jeopardize the justice system's smooth operation, with layoffs likely in both the U.S. attorney and public defender's offices.

The cuts are part of what's known as the budget sequester, and they're due to take effect Oct. 1 barring a deal in Congress.

The national public defenders service is facing a 23 percent cut, and Minnesota's federal defender, Katherian Roe, said she will likely have to reduce her staff from 18 people to 10.

Jeanne Cooney, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office for Minnesota, said her office will see cuts in personnel and operations but the extent isn't clear yet. The office has already been under a hiring and salary freeze.

"All indications are that all U.S. Attorney offices will be faced with huge cuts in order to get to the budget levels ordered per sequestration," Cooney said.

Each office's cuts will be determined by the Executive Office for United States Attorneys, part of the Justice Department in Washington.

Minnesota's chief federal judge, U.S. District Judge Michael Davis, told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that he is "deeply disturbed" about the cuts and warned, "At some point, things will start breaking down."

"It will severely hamper the administration of justice, period," Davis said. The cuts, he said, "will reverberate through our system from day one."

Scaling back on the number of public defenders is likely to be more costly. Without enough of them, cases will be assigned to 125 private lawyers on a special panel set up under a law known as the Criminal Justice Act. On a case-by-case basis in Minnesota, those attorneys are 144 percent more expensive than a federal defender, Roe said.

If money for the special panel lawyers runs out, judges may press private attorneys to represent defendants pro bono. Roe said that could lead to real estate or personal injury attorneys representing people charged with crimes, which she called "a major step backward" in criminal defense.

The office of Probation and Pretrial Services also faces cuts, which Davis said would lead to less drug testing, fewer mental health services, less defendant access to halfway houses and reduced location monitoring.

There have been piecemeal moves to undo some of the broad cuts under the Budget Control Act of 2011, including legislation to put 15,000 air traffic controllers back to work. But no similar rescue measure has happened yet for federal courts.

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Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.