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Judge: U.S. civil trials at risk without budget deal

WASHINGTON — Federal civil jury trials in the United States probably would grind to a halt if Congress fails to reach a budget deal and $600 billion in automatic spending cuts kick in next year, a leading federal judge said Tuesday.

The federal judiciary’s share of the cuts would be more than $500 million if Congress does not reach a budget deal by year’s end to prevent some $1.2 trillion in spending cuts and tax increases from kicking in next year, Chief Judge David Sentelle of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia said. Economists fear that spending cuts and tax increases of that magnitude would produce a shock that could send the economy off what they’ve called a “fiscal cliff.”

“Civil jury trials would probably have to be suspended due to a lack of funding,” Sentelle said, following a meeting at the Supreme Court of the Judicial Conference, the judiciary’s policy-making arm led by Chief Justice John Roberts.

The reason civil jury trials would be suspended is for lack of money to pay jurors, but civil trials before judges without juries probably could continue.

The probation system and payment for defense lawyers also could be thrown into disarray, Sentelle said.

Already over-burdened “border courts will be hurt the worst,” he said.

The judiciary is developing contingency plans to deal with severe budget cutbacks, he said. Those might include closing some entrances to courthouses to save money on security personnel.

In a modest cost-cutting move expected to save $1 million a year in rent, the conference also announced that six courthouses in the South will close over the next few years and that more facilities probably would meet the same fate.

“We ain’t done yet,” said Sentelle, chairman of the conference’s executive committee.

The courthouses to be closed are in Gadsen, Ala.; Pikeville, Ky.; Meridian, Miss.; Wilkesboro, N.C.; Beaufort, S.C.; and Amarillo, Texas, the Judicial Conference said. In Pikeville, the closure will affect only federal bankruptcy court, the district’s clerk said.

The Beaufort facility was ranked first and the Meridian facility fifth on a list of courthouses being considered for closing, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press in March. But the other four ranked no higher than 22nd.

Sentelle said the list was winnowed over the past few months to eliminate courthouses initially considered for closing.

He pointed to one candidate, in Bryson City, N.C., which is near an Indian reservation. While most criminal matters are handled in state courts, the federal system deals with crimes committed on Indian lands.

In other cases, Sentelle said local “political muscle causes courthouses to remain that ought to be closed.”

Associated Press writer Jeannie Nuss in Little Rock, Ark., contributed to this report.