As Chief Judge Ruben Castillo was preparing to take the reins of Chicago’s federal court earlier this summer, he said he “could see a storm that was brewing big time.”
Castillo, who succeeded U.S. District Judge James Holderman as chief judge in July, started his seven-year term as the cloud of budget issues continued to hover over Congress.
Intent on keeping the court running and avoiding further financial cuts, Castillo, however, knew the forecast was gloomy as he said words and phrases like sequestration, paycheck uncertainty and government shutdown had become “the new normal at the federal courthouse.”
“I knew I was in a Congressional whirlwind,” he said Monday at a luncheon hosted by the City Club of Chicago.
Despite being the new chief judge, Castillo was not naïve when it came to Washington D.C. He said he had the chance to get “a lot of really close, quality time” with lawmakers while serving as one of the vice chairs of the U.S. Sentencing Commission from 1999 to 2010.
During his 11 years of traveling back and forth for his work with the commission, Castillo joked that he almost wanted to kiss the ground when he returned to Chicago because he was so happy to leave behind the “insanity” that ensued in the nation’s capital.
Castillo can no longer ignore the “insanity” because as chief judge, he is responsible for making sure the government provides proper funding so the doors of his courthouse can stay open.
And in his new role, he is not staying quiet about the devastating effects he contends further budget cuts would have on the federal judiciary.
On Monday, he told those who attended the luncheon at Maggiano’s that even though Congress recently raised the debt ceiling and authorized current spending levels until mid-January in order to end the government shutdown, it was only a temporary fix.
“This is not the way to run a business,” Castillo said.
He said Congress needs to come up with a permanent budget that is fair to Chicago’s federal court, which is made up of 22 district judges, 10 senior judges and numerous employees that serve a district that stretches 10,000 square miles and includes a population of more than 9 million people.
The court runs on a budget of about $14 million each year and carries an annual caseload of more than 12,000 civil cases and about 1,000 criminal cases.
Castillo said Chicago’s federal court is “the center of the community” and serves as an economic boom to the city with out-of-state attorneys and litigants spending their money at local businesses while in town for court.
He also referred to it as “the jewel of the federal system,” pointing to the district’s pilot program for patent cases, which he said have doubled in recent years.
Castillo also said about 2,000 multi district cases have been transferred here, a sign that judges from across the nation see Chicago’s federal court as home to one of the most efficient systems in the nation.
As political fighting dominated budget talks and contributed to the government shutdown, Castillo said he is concerned for the future of the courts.
He questions “why we are playing around with” the financial security of the courts, especially the “jewel” that is Chicago’s federal court.
“What we are doing in federal court is priceless,” he said. “This can’t be threatened.”
Saying that he will not allow the court system to be dismantled during his tenure, Castillo asked attendants at Monday’s luncheon for help in his mission of ensuring Congress passes a fair budget for the federal judiciary.
“I have all kinds of plans,” he said, adding that “we can do so much better.”
Castillo said slashing the budget of the federal judiciary “makes courts make bad decisions.” He said that during previous budget discussions, officials examined the possibility of cutting funding for court security.
“Can you imagine that?” Castillo said, noting that the proposal to cut that funding was pulled shortly after the mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard.
When the government shut down last month, Castillo said, Chicago’s federal court had enough money in savings to keep the doors open for 17 days.
He said he didn’t think it would last more than a few days, but was obviously wrong. He is now keeping close tabs on the Senate and House budget conference, which he said is set to meet Nov. 13 and has been given a Dec. 13 deadline to come up with a budget.
The tight deadline, he said, leaves federal courts across the nation waiting to find out whether they remain on the budget chopping block and a short period of time to then figure out how they may need to adjust.
Asserting that this is “no way to manage a courthouse,” Castillo said there are ways other than across-the-board cuts to save the government money.
He said he helped save the government money through his work on the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which worked on getting legislation to shorten the sentences of more than 7,000 prisoners passed.
Doing so, Castillo said, saved the government about half of a billion dollars in costs associated with housing prisoners.
“There are ways we can save money,” he said, suggesting that the elimination of some of the mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders could help the government further reduce its prisoner housing costs.
He also said the federal judiciary's re-entry programs save the government money.
Participants in these programs, which Castillo said are in 60 percent of the 95 federal court districts, allow certain individuals to be put on supervised release and thus, reduce the government’s tab for housing prisoners.
Despite having “all types of plans” for his tenure as chief judge, Castillo said he won’t be able to follow through on any of them “with one hand tied behind my back" or even worse, with both hands tied behind his back depending on the budget Congress comes up with.
On top of continuing the district’s pilot patent program, he said he wants to see Chicago’s federal courtrooms with more technology, like Wi-Fi and individual computer screens for jurors. Such improvements, however, would require more funding, he said.
In the meantime, Castillo said he will work to make sure his court doesn’t face any further funding cuts. Following his speech, he said is not worried about speaking out about his concerns and will continue to put pressure on Congress until he sees a fair budget.