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Chief justice stresses need for judges, funds despite fiscal strain

By Jonathan Stempel

(Reuters) - U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts on Monday called on the White House and Congress to provide sufficient funding and enough judges to ensure that the federal judiciary can do its job well despite the fiscal problems the country faces.

In his annual report on the federal judiciary, Roberts recognized the battle in Washington over the "fiscal cliff," saying the country has a fiscal ledger that has "gone awry" and must address the longer-term problem of a "truly extravagant and burgeoning national debt."

He said the judiciary has been doing its part to cut costs aggressively, but can only go so far given that it cannot choose its caseload or economize much further without reducing the quality of its services.

Roberts noted the efforts of some courts to stay open after Hurricane Sandy, with the Manhattan federal court working without heat and under sparse light from emergency generators a day after the storm struck in late October.

"A significant and prolonged shortfall in judicial funding would inevitably result in the delay or denial of justice for the people the courts serve," he wrote. "I therefore encourage the President and Congress to be especially attentive to the needs of the Judicial Branch and provide the resources necessary for its operations."

FILLING VACANCIES

One need is judicial vacancies, which can be harder to fill amid partisan divides in Washington.

Democratic President Barack Obama has won confirmation of 172 nominees to the federal bench, compared with 205 that his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, got over the same period in his first term, according to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

There are now 75 federal court vacancies, up from 55 when Obama took office in 2009, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.

Twenty-seven of these vacancies have been deemed "judicial emergencies" by the Judicial Conference of the United States, based on case backlogs and duration.

Roberts urged the White House and Congress to act diligently in confirming high-quality candidates to fill these vacancies.

The 75 vacancies include one judgeship that has been unfilled for eight years as well as Roberts' own former seat on the federal appeals court in Washington, which has been vacant since he was elevated to the Supreme Court in 2005.

Obama has nominated Caitlin Halligan, general counsel to Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, for Roberts' old seat.

FRACTION OF A CENT

Roberts said the Judicial Conference, then led by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, had adopted an aggressive cost-cutting strategy in 2004.

He said such efforts remain necessary given that federal judiciary, one of three U.S. government branches, received an appropriation of $6.97 billion for 2012 - a "miniscule" 0.2 cents of each dollar in the nation's $3.7 trillion budget.

The chief justice also said frugality begins at home, noting that the Supreme Court will seek $74.89 million of funding for its 2014 fiscal year, down 1 percent to 4 percent from each of the three prior years.

Cutbacks are needed even though most federal court caseloads have not changed appreciably, based on data provided by Roberts.

While case filings in district courts fell 5 percent this year to 372,563, filings in regional appeals courts rose 4 percent to 57,501. Supreme Court filings fell 2 percent to 7,713, and bankruptcy filings fell 14 percent to 1,261,140.

(This story was corrected in paragraphs 10 and11 to make clear Roberts urged judicial emergencies be addressed)

(Reporting By Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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