Last updated: February 20. 2013 1:21AM - 174 Views

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W hile Congress and the president spent weeks and months engaged in fiscal chicken, the third branch felt the uncertainty as though it were any other federal agency and not a constitutionally co-equal partner in government.

More than 30 nominees to federal judgeships never received Senate votes, even though most were thoroughly non-controversial and the inaction left some courts seriously understaffed.

Court clerks notified lawyers and litigants about potential service reductions if mandatory funding cuts were allowed to take effect for lack of a budget deal.

Frustrated federal judges filed a class-action complaint against the government seeking unpaid cost-of-living adjustments that Congress promised but then didn't pay.

In his year-end report on the judiciary, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts made it sound as though the courts were simultaneously neutral observers to the problem of a truly extravagant and burgeoning national debt and loyal team players. But that might be misleading.

Winding a yarn about a mythical sailor on the USS Constitution, a frigate durable but economical, nimble yet powerful, Roberts used it as a metaphor for the legal Constitution's durability. But he also got around to what he described as the courts' aggressive cost-containment strategy.

We in the judiciary stand outside the political arena, but we continue to do our part to address the financial challenges without our sphere, he said, noting that the Judicial Branch continues to consume a miniscule portion of the federal budget.

In the last fiscal year, operating the federal judiciary cost the American people about $6.97 billion (not counting fees): or about two-tenths of a penny from each tax dollar, by Roberts' math.

He said the Supreme Court plans to cut its appropriations request for 2014 to $74.89 million (from $77.16 million in fiscal 2013) but that the courts can't economize much more than they have without hurting the quality of services.

Unlike executive branch agencies, the courts do not have discretionary programs they can eliminate or projects they can postpone, he said, with the sort of polite but withering jab at which he's so skilled.

It's notable that Roberts this year did not invoke the familiar theme of higher pay for federal judges. Instead, he urged the president and Congress to fill seats on the bench.

At the end of December, 27 vacancies were designated judicial emergencies, meaning the position has been open more than 18 months and/or the court has an especially large number of filings.

Needless skirmishing over judicial nominations is a problem the Senate must address so nominees aren't left in limbo and courts have the personnel they need to operate. No one wins from brinksmanship here.

At the end of December, 27 vacancies were designated judicial emergencies…

Fort Worth Star-Telegram

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