Cuts in Alaska court second highest in nation

Federal court suffered 15.3 percent worker loss due to tight budget

Posted: Friday, December 03, 2004

ANCHORAGE - Alaska's federal court has lost 11 workers over the past year due to budget problems, resulting in the clerk's office being open to the public fewer hours and employees having to perform multiple tasks.

The 15.3 percent worker loss is the second-highest rate in the nation for the period between October 2003 to October 2004, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

Nationwide, 1,350 federal court jobs have been lost and another 509 employees have been furloughed because of budget constraints, according to court officials.

Topping the list is the U.S. District Court for Western Tennessee, which lost 30 jobs over the past year, or 15.6 percent of its workers.

Like Alaska, that district has reduced its hours. On Wednesday, the clerk's office in Tennessee began closing at 4:30 p.m. instead of 5 p.m. In Alaska, the clerk's office is now closed from 12:30 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. - an hour reduction.

The Alaska district clerk's office lost six employees in the past year, four due to budget cuts and two due to retirement - vacancies that were not filled because of uncertainty about next year's budget, said District Clerk Michael Hall.

The cuts have not resulted in a work slowdown because Alaska's overall federal caseload also has declined, Hall said, although criminal cases are on the rise.

The remaining employees have had to be cross-trained to perform additional tasks, Hall said. For example, a court clerk now can be called upon to perform the duties of a jury clerk or a financial staffer.

"It's at a workable balance right now. Everybody is cross-trained," Hall said. "It is tight at this time, (but) we don't anticipate any additional reductions."

Hall said he was not sure where the remaining five job cuts came from, although they may be staffers working in judges' chambers.

U.S. Attorney Tim Burgess said the cuts may be felt more as his office's caseload increases. The overall number of federal criminal cases in Alaska jumped about 30 percent in 2003. The biggest rise is in gun cases, which increased 55 percent and for which a new office has been opened, Burgess said.

"I think we have noticed the shorter hours, but I guess it's something that's probably going to have an exponential effect as it goes forward," he said Thursday. "It's certainly going to present some challenges."

Additionally, if a gas pipeline from the North Slope is approved and construction begins, that project is likely to generate a lot more civil casework, further straining the system, Burgess said.

Federal Public Defender Rich Curtner said he has noticed a delay in receiving transcripts and tapes of hearings, but he has not encountered a problem filing cases.

"It's not been a big impact, but we're concerned that if there are more cuts there would be a bigger impact," Curtner said.

And if Burgess' office expands, particularly by increasing the number of attorneys in Southeast Alaska, it would be an additional strain on existing resources, Curtner said.

"The U.S. attorney can sort of dictate the caseload. They can decide which cases merit prosecution," he said, adding that more assistant U.S. attorneys would likely translate into a greater caseload.

The federal public defender office for the District of Alaska also is funded by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, but its staff of 15 has not been affected by the budget crunch.

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