Chief Justice Roberts: Sequester cuts hitting federal judiciary ‘hard’

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts on Saturday said the sequester is hurting the judicial branch and that he’s hopeful Congress will provide flexibility.

Roberts, speaking at a conference in West Virginia, noted that the judicial branch of government overall is less than one percent of the federal budget.

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“You get a whole branch of government under the Constitution for relative pennies, and the idea that we have to be swept along because it is good public policy to cut everybody – I am not commenting on that policy at all – but the notion that we should just be swept along with it I think is really unfounded,” Roberts said of the across-the-board budget cuts.

“The cuts hit us particularly hard because we are made up of people. That is what the judicial branch is. It is not like we are the Pentagon where you can slow up a particular procurement program or a lot of the other agencies. When we have sustained cuts that mean people have to be furloughed or worse and that has a more direct impact on the services that we can provide,” he added, speaking at the Fourth Circuit Judicial Conference.

Roberts said the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts is working with congressional appropriators “to get them to go to bat for us,” and that he's hopeful.

“I hope we are able to make an effective case for why need a little bit more flexibility than others,” Roberts said.

And, in a bit of humor, he tried some obvious flattery.

“I just want to say publicly, that I think our appropriators in Congress are the best legislators since Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, and you can quote me on that if you’d like,” Roberts said.

In other remarks, Roberts said the Supreme Court justices are asking too many questions from the bench during oral arguments.

“We do overdo it,” Roberts said. “The bench has gotten more and more aggressive.” He noted that lawyers trying to present their arguments “feel cheated sometimes.”

He said that justices do not talk about cases before the arguments. So they use questions as a way to “bring out points that we think our colleagues ought to know about,” and debate one another through questions to lawyers making arguments.

But he said, “That is an explanation. It is not meant as an excuse.”

“I do think we have gone too far,” Roberts said. “It is too much and I think we do need to address it a little bit.”

Roberts comments came after a busy week for the court, with justices handing down rulings striking down a key portion of the Voting Rights Act and ruling the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional.