Judge Richard Leon of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Photo by Diego M. Radzinschi/ NLJ

U.S. District Judge Richard Leon this week refused to allow federal workers to resist Trump administration orders to report to duty unpaid during the partial government shutdown. The order, delivered from the bench, was a setback for hundreds of thousands of workers who are required, or being told, to report to work with no compensation.

Leon on Friday issued a six-page written ruling in which he expressed empathy for the plight of federal employees as the shutdown, now the longest in the nation’s modern history, drags on. Leon’s ruling came in consolidated cases that involve labor unions and individual federal employees who allege their forced work for no pay violates federal law.

Here’s a snippet from Leon’s written decision:

“I empathize with the plaintiffs’ positions. They are not the ones at fault here. Indeed, the judiciary is dealing with the same realities that the executive branch is facing. I have no doubt whatsoever that there is real hardship being felt by innocent federal employees across the country right now.”

Leon went on: “But I want to make something very clear: The judiciary is not just another source of leverage to be tapped in the ongoing squabble between the political branches. We are an independent, co-equal branch of government, and whether or not we can afford to keep the lights on, our oath is to the Constitution and the faithful application of the law. In the final analysis, the shutdown is a political problem. It does not, and can not, change this court’s limited role.”

Leon refused to issue a temporary restraining order, saying such a move would be “profoundly irresponsible under these circumstances.” He wrote: “At best, it would create chaos and confusion—at worst, catastrophe!” Leon said: “I am not going to put people’s live at risk with a somewhat knee-jerk, blanket TRO.”

The lawyers in the cases will return to Leon’s courtroom in Washington, just down the street from the U.S. Capitol, on Jan. 31. The judge wants to hear argument to a pending request for a preliminary injunction. Whether the government is still shutdown then is anyone’s guess.


Leon’s written order is posted in full below:



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