Unlike most federal agencies, the federal judiciary found money to keep federal courts nationwide fully funded for the first two weeks of the government shutdown. As the end of the first week approached with no budget deal, though, chief judges of federal trial and appellate courts across the country grappled with what to do once the money runs out.
“We’re all working through it, trying to figure out where we’re going to go right now,” Chief Judge Morrison England Jr. of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California said. “We’re in uncharted territory right now.”
Judges said they received guidance from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts on preparing for a shutdown, but each court was coming up with its own plan. Many judges expected to send home employees serving certain administrative functions—human resources, for instance—as nonessential. The judiciary had enough money from fees and other sources to operate for about 10 business days absent congressional appropriations.
A number of chief judges expressed their frustration with Congress.
“We hope that the people who got elected to go to Washington to pass a budget will do their work,” Chief Judge Fred Biery of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas said. “That’s kind of a basic thing they go up there to do. They can fight about all this other stuff at other times.”
Biery said his team had yet to decide whether employees would be declared nonessential. “The ones who have to deal directly with processing and giving due process to these folks who are arrested and waiting in jail to have their cases, those are the people who would be deemed essential,” he said. Nonessential employees could include human resources or information technology staff. The court was already operating “down to the bone” due to budget cuts, he added.
Several judges spoke about the pain of declaring employees nonessential having already gone through furloughs, hiring freezes and layoffs during the mandatory federal budget cuts earlier this year known as sequestration. “We’re already operating at a lower number, so it’s kind of hard to take more people away,” England said.
While many judges were still hashing out plans, at least two courts had already declared all employees essential: the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. In a September 30 order, Chief Judge Loretta Preska of the Southern District wrote that the court’s functions were “mandated by the Constitution and essential to any government of free people.” The order applied to all employees of the U.S. district and bankruptcy courts.
Preska said via email that as a result of flat funding and the sequestration, the court had already “drastically” cut employees. “We are barely able to run the Court on such a lean staff,” she said. “Accordingly, every employee of the Court is critical to continuing to perform the Court’s Constitutional duties, and I have so designated each employee.” She planned to suspend “non-critical” activities such as travel for training.
The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York hadn’t made a decision yet, according to district executive Eugene Corcoran. Officials were in communication with their colleagues in the Southern District, but “we are going to take full advantage of the 10-day window we have,” he said.
Robert Barth Jr., clerk of the court for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, said his court would follow a model laid out by federal court officials in North Dakota, with adjustments. That plan could declare certain employees in areas such as human resources or procurement nonessential, he said. Assuming the court goes into shutdown mode, he added, administrators would re-evaluate the situation on a weekly basis. “It’s supposed to be a fluid plan,” he said.
The U.S. district court, court of appeals and bankruptcy court in the District of Columbia face the unique situation of sharing a single building. U.S. District Chief Judge Richard Roberts said each court would make its own decision about declaring employees nonessential, but that officials would cooperate regarding shared services including security.
“I will hold out hope that we’ll have an appropriation eventually and soon that will not prolong this uncertainty,” Roberts said.
Contact Zoe Tillman at firstname.lastname@example.org.