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US judges put on hold 42 projects

WASHINGTON -- Federal judges voted yesterday to delay court construction projects around the country to save $225 million and avoid laying off up to 3,500 employees.

The decision by the Judicial Conference of the United States affects projects in 42 cities, and comes after 1,000 jobs were cut in the last year because of money woes.

Judges met privately with congressional leaders to seek help, but US Appeals Court Judge Carolyn Dineen King said no promises were made. Domestic security and the war in Iraq are making less money available, she said.

Even with the savings on construction, up to 4,800 people could lose their jobs in the next year, King said.

''Things are going to be tough," said King, chief judge of the New Orleans-based 5th US Circuit Court of Appeals.

She said the earlier layoffs have left fewer probation officers to monitor released inmates, fewer clerks to handle paperwork, and caused backups of federal inmates in local jails because of delays in processing transfers.

About 21,000 people work for federal courts as clerks and other support staff and could face layoffs. Federal judges and employees of their chambers would not be affected.

Last week, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist said in a letter to Congress that courts should be protected from any freezes in funding because the judiciary ''plays a vital role in our nation's law enforcement and homeland security." Rehnquist said he was worried that thousands of valued employees would have to be let go.

Rehnquist heads the Judicial Conference, which sets policy for federal courts. The conference approved a two-year moratorium on 42 courthouse construction projects that were in the planning stages. The decision is expected to save $225 million a year.

Those projects include one in Burlington, Vt.

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