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Monday, July 15, 2024 | Back issues
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Federal Courts Tot Up Cost of Shutdown

(CN) - Postponed civil, criminal and bankruptcy cases, and continuing uncertainty about juror and court employee pay were among the issues the federal courts had to cope with during the government's 17-day shutdown.

Federal courts were "shaken" by Washington's failure to fund the federal government for fiscal year 2014, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts said in its newsletter, The Third Branch News.

The shutdown began Oct. 1, after House Republicans refused to support a resolution to fund the government without language delaying or defunding Obamacare, or the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

The government reopened after the Senate passed an interim appropriations bill on Oct.17.

Manhattan Bankruptcy Court Chief Judge Cecelia Morris said the shutdown held up cases and created a backlog that "will almost be unmanageable."

"It's like the proverbial car accident," Morris told The Third Branch News. "The first one was just a fender bender, but now cars are backed up 10 miles down the road."

West Allen, chair of the Government Relations Committee of the Federal Bar Association, was just as forthright. Before the standoff finished "federal courts were on their last breath," he said.

"The judges and court staff did an exceptional job of getting through this, but if it had gone even another week or two, there would have been real problems," Allen said.

Delays in bankruptcy and Social Security cases and condensed criminal calendars added to the "stress and confusion" about whether court funding would run out before political leaders brokered a deal, the federal courts said.

U.S. Marshals had to work without pay.

The General Services Administration was forced to cut building maintenance.

While other parts of the federal government had to suspend services, the federal courts relied on a reserve fund of court filing fees to pay court employees.

As the shutdown dragged on, court employees faced the prospect of furloughs while there was growing uncertainty over whether courts could pay jurors.

The day before Congress ended the shutdown, Chicago Federal Courts' Chief Judge Ruben Castillo told attorneys he would suspend jury trials rather than make jurors serve without pay.

"Asking jurors to serve with the promise of future payment is unfair, when some have to drive 150 miles every day. It's a big hardship," Castillo told Third Branch News.

Criminal and civil cases that included the United States as a party were suspended and postponed after Department of Justice attorneys were furloughed.

Cases involving the United States as a party account for roughly one-sixth of federal complaints, the federal courts said.

Wisconsin Bankruptcy Court Judge Pamela Pepper lamented the hours employees had to spend navigating through the crisis.

"The biggest impact was the amount of time spent by judges and court personnel figuring out what to do," Pepper said. "You had court staff wondering if they will be able to pay the mortgage or the rent, judges trying to figure out who we'd send home. It was hours and hours of time that we could have devoted to actually doing our work."

In a statement to congressional leaders, American Bar Association President James Silkenat warned of the consequences of the shutdown and ongoing sequestration cuts.

"The political brinksmanship that brought our government to a standstill reflects the same intransigence and unwillingness to compromise that imposed sequestration on government programs and activities, including all activities of the federal judiciary," Silkenat told the House Judiciary Committee Forum on Oct. 8.

Sequestration posed the "greatest threat to the fair administration of justice," and current levels of funding "would have dire consequences for the judiciary," said Silkenat, a partner at Sullivan & Worcester in New York.

Silkenat said that if the House and Senate cannot agree to a budget that "meets discretionary spending caps mandated in the Budget Control Act of 2011 or enact an alternative bipartisan deficit reduction plan, the federal courts could be subject to yet another round of across-the-board budget cuts that will be even more severe than those currently in place."

The third-longest government shutdown in U.S. history furloughed 800,000 federal employees delayed paychecks to another 1.3 million. It is expected to knock 0.1 percent off quarterly economic growth.

Though Republicans tried to defund or delay the Affordable Care Act as part of the deal to reopen the government, Senate Democrats agreed only to implement more stringent rules for verifying incomes of people who buy health care through the government's insurance exchanges.

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