Judiciary at Risk of Closure Due to Shutdown

A prolonged partial government shutdown could impact more than executive branch functions.  The federal judiciary is nearly a week away from shutting down, an unprecedented incident that could spell trouble for legal cases across the country.

The federal judiciary announced on January 7 that without congressional appropriations, the courts would be using fee balances and other non-appropriated funds to maintain operations until January 18. This is longer than the originally predicted January 11, but still presents challenges to the functioning of the judiciary.

As explained in the announcement, “In an effort to achieve this goal, courts have been asked to delay or defer non-mission critical expenses, such as new hires, non-case related travel, and certain contracts. Judiciary employees are reporting to work and currently are in full-pay status.”

Courts around the country have already taken steps to combat the lack of funds such as suspending or postponing all civil cases and shutting down certain civil functions.

The federal judiciary has encouraged courts to work with their district’s U.S. Attorney, U.S. Marshal, and Federal Protective Service staff to maintain court operations, but the courts lack a uniform system for handling this situation.

The New York Times reported, “Federal judges across the country have issued a hodgepodge of conflicting orders. In the Federal District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia, a federal judge ordered that all cases in which the federal government is a party be delayed. Another judge issued an order exempting his own cases from the first judge’s order. The second judge, Joseph R. Goodwin, wrote: ‘It is my view that the government should not be given special influence or accommodation in cases where such special considerations are unavailable to other litigants.’ Justice Department lawyers whose civil cases are not granted delays can keep working to meet court deadlines and requirements for filings and appearances.”

Criminal cases are expected to continue as scheduled. During previous government shutdowns the Supreme Court has remained open. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear 11 cases this month.

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