Published on: Monday, October 9, 2023

Twenty-three Democratic U.S. senators on Friday urged congressional appropriators to increase spending on federal public defenders beyond what is proposed in pending spending legislation or risk significant job cuts (article available here).

In a letter to the leaders of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee, the 23 senators said more money was needed for fiscal year 2024 than contemplated in pending spending bills to "maintain the right to counsel in federal court."

The letter was organized by Senator Peter Welch of Vermont, a former public defender himself, and counts among its signatories all of the Democratic members of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, including its chair, Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois.

Those bills have yet to pass either chamber of Congress, which faces a Nov. 17 deadline to pass spending legislation or another stop-gap spending measure to avert a partial government shutdown.

"Nearly 9 in 10 individuals charged with a federal crime cannot afford legal representation and thus are constitutionally entitled to appointed counsel," the letter said. "Preserving the public defender workforce is essential to our justice system."

A report in September by the judiciary's research arm, the Federal Judicial Center, said the potential shortfall had its origins in an accounting decision made by the judiciary, whose process of drafting budget requests has prioritized its overall needs over those of the public defenders who work within it.