Until now, federal courts have funded operations during the government shutdown by digging into their financial reserves. On October 17, however, that money is expected to run out. All 89 federal district courts, including bankruptcy courts, and 13 federal appeals courts, will have to decide how to manage their constitutional mandate to adjudicate cases in the absence of federal funding.
Many courts are waiting to publicize their plans, hoping that if they can eek by until the end of the week, the government may reopen. Chief Judges in many districts have designated all court employees “essential” to continuing operations. “Essential” employees are expected to come to work, but will not be paid until the government shutdown is over. Of course, without their paychecks, some employees may not be able to afford the costs of transportation and childcare required to go to work.
But the problems don’t end there.
- Civil cases in which the government is a party are already on hold by order of the Department of Justice. Other civil cases are still on the docket, but will be the first to be delayed since the law mandates that criminal cases take precedence. Yet even then, criminal cases depend on the availability of U.S. Attorneys to prosecute and U.S. Marshalls to provide security and transport prisoners.
- The shutdown may also shutter the doors of some bankruptcy courts, depending on decisions in individual districts. Districts must also weigh funding for probation and pre-trial services.
- Contractors providing drug testing or mental health treatment will be told that they cannot be paid, but will asked to continue necessary services on good faith.
- Jurors will not be paid.
What’s worse, the Brennan Center found government dysfunction has already created unprecedented workloads and unusually high judicial vacancy levels in district courts. Additionally, the sequester cut $350 million from the judiciary’s budget this year, with the number of employees working in the federal courts now at the lowest level since 1999. Federal defenders saw a $52 million cut, affecting the 90 percent of federal criminal defendants who need court-appointed counsel. Funding for courtroom security was cut 30 percent, and probation and pretrial supervision officers have lost 7 percent of staff, leaving both courtrooms and communities vulnerable. Bankruptcy courts are struggling to resolve complex cases in a timely manner with reduced staff and shorter hours.
The shutdown is only further hindering federal judges’ ability to perform the jobs they were confirmed to do: administer justice. Congress needs to do its job, so the courts can do theirs. Our justice system depends on it.
Photo by afagen.