With Taut Purse Strings, ‘El Chapo’ Trial Chugs Forward in Shutdown

Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, surrounded by U.S. marshals, waves to his wife as he enters a federal courtroom in Brooklyn where his high-security trial got underway on Nov. 13, 2018. The infamous Mexican drug lord has been held in solitary confinement since his extradition to the United States early last year. Guzman pleaded not guilty to charges that he amassed a multi-billion-dollar fortune smuggling tons of cocaine and other drugs in a vast supply chain that reached New York, New Jersey, Texas and elsewhere north of the border. (Elizabeth Williams via AP)

BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) – As the trial of drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman resumes Thursday after the holiday break, a stream of new court filings signal that the government shutdown has not slowed down prosecutors who are working for free.

Thanks to the fees it collects, among other sources of funding, the U.S. court system did not shut its doors immediately when the shutdown began on Dec. 22.

For government lawyers and the U.S. marshals securing the high-profile Brooklyn trial, however, continued proceedings have meant that they must work without pay until the court’s funds runs out on Jan. 11.

The U.S. Marshals Service has had a heavy presence in and around the Guzman courtroom for nearly two months now. While typically dedicating three from their ranks to guarding the slippery defendant during testimony — Guzman twice escaped high-security prisons in Mexico before his extradition — U.S. marshals also personally transport the trial’s 12 anonymous jurors and four alternates to and from the courthouse. 

Deputy U.S. marshals also handle the Explosive Detection Dogs Unit assigned to the courthouse for the case.

Drew Wade, a spokesman for the service, sent some context Wednesday for news reports suggesting that the shutdown has required 3,600 deputy U.S. marshals to work without pay.

“While all U.S. Marshals Service employees are critical, only excepted staff like deputy U.S. marshals are authorized and required to conduct official business during a government shutdown,” Wade said in an email.

Should the federal courts exhaust their funding reserves, Wade assured that “U.S. marshals will continue to protect the court family and other protectees.”

David Sellers, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, said in an email Wednesday that Jan. 11 is not an absolute cutoff date, as the federal judiciary has been “delaying or deferring expenses” in an effort to stretch the available funds.

Sellers said the agency might “fine tune their projection as to how long the funds will last, if and when circumstances warrant.”

Many civil cases have already been put on hold, but criminal cases like Guzman’s are among those exempted as “essential to the safety of human life and the protection of property,” and in keeping with the Speedy Trial Act.

Calling it a matter of national security, President Donald Trump has made funding for the border wall a sticking point in negotiations to reopen the government. Ironically the 61-year-old Guzman is on trial here for, among other things, building a series of tunnels that the Sinaloa cartel used to smuggle drugs across the border from Mexico.  

Testimony in the Guzman trial has attested to incredible adaptivity of the drug-trafficking industry when it comes to new forms of law enforcement.

In April 2017, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, proposed to pay for border security with assets seized from drug traffickers under the “EL CHAPO” Act, an acronym for Ensuring Lawful Collection of Hidden Assets to Provide Order.

It hasn’t had much momentum since.

The chief judge of the Eastern District of New York laid out the court’s responsibilities and priorities for the shutdown in a Dec. 26 executive order.

“The General Services Administration, the Federal Protective Service and the United States Marshals Service are requested to maintain all functions necessary for the continued safe use of all United States Courthouse facilities in the Eastern District of New York,” Chief U.S. District Judge Dora Irizarry wrote.

“This court will continue to hear and decide cases without disruption, accept new filings and process them in a timely manner.” 

The order did not mention pay, but Sellers noted that it will not be an issue for U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan, who is presiding over Guzman’s trial.

“Under the Constitution, judges are entitled to their salary regardless of the status of the judiciary’s appropriation and judges will continue to work,” he wrote.

As for the jurors, both Guzman’s and those serving in other trials, Eastern District of New York District Executive Gene Corcoran said in an email Wednesday that they would be paid through Jan 11. 

Sellers followed up that jurors would “continue to serve” if the available funds are depleted, but “will not be paid until funds are appropriated.”

Juries tend to self-select for people who either do not work or can already afford to take time off to serve, or whose employers pay them for time they spend on jury duty. The Guzman jurors earn $60 per day for their time.

Guzman defense attorney Jeffrey Lichtman said in a phone interview Wednesday that the issue of juror pay in the trial might be a “moot point.”

“January 11th is a long time from now, in the scheme of things,” he said. Describing a visit earlier today to the Southern District of New York while representing a client, Lichtman said he did not notice any differences in courthouse operations.

“I’d forgotten about the shutdown,” Lichtman said.

After previous shutdowns, Congress has historically made it the first order of business to grant back pay to federal workers.

A media representative at AFGE Local 2272, which according to its website represents all Marshals Service bargaining unit members, did not return multiple requests for comment Wednesday. The union, the American Federation of Government Employees, sued the Trump administration over the shutdown Monday.

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