Federal judges across the country are pressing ahead with planning for the full effects of the government shutdown as lawmakers on Capitol Hill try to hammer out a deal to end the budget impasse.
The federal judiciary is expected to exhaust alternative sources of funding to keep courts fully operational by the end of the week. In a letter sent to judges on October 16, the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts said the judiciary had found enough money to continue operations through the end of the pay period on October 18. Judge John Bates, director of the administrative office, wrote he was “hopeful” Congress would reach a deal soon.
A spokesman for the administrative office, Charles Hall, said judiciary officials planned to hold conference calls on October 16 with chief judges, court executives and chief federal public defenders nationwide to answer questions about the shutdown. The calls will not be open to the public, Hall said.
Chief appellate and district judges are responsible for crafting shutdown plans for their respective courts. More than two dozen courts have declared all employees essential during the shutdown, and orders continued to trickle out this week. Other chief judges have said they expect to furlough certain employees in areas such as procurement or human resources.
Under federal law, courts can only keep “essential” employees on the job. The administrative office sent out guidance in September that defined “essential” activities; the guidance advised against sweeping orders declaring everyone essential.
Judges have grappled with that guidance, saying budget cuts in recent years left judges no choice but to declare all personnel essential. In an order October 15, Chief Judge Terry Wooten of the U.S. District Court for South Carolina declared all court staff essential, with the caveat that employees might be temporarily furloughed if they weren’t needed to perform “essential” work for a full eight-hour work day.
“Due to the recent reductions in the number of staff currently on-board, staff have been cross-trained to perform myriad duties, and there is no employee whose sole job function falls outside of the accepted criteria used in making the determination that his or her work is essential in performing the Court’s Constitutional responsibilities,” Wooten wrote.
Wooten declined to comment today.
Other judges declared all employees essential with no mention of furloughs. On October 11, Chief Judge Wilma Lewis of the U.S. District Court for the Virgin Islands issued an order saying that due to “reductions in workforce already caused by fiscal restraints, and the minimal and mission-oriented staffing levels in the Court,” all court employees were deemed essential during the shutdown.
Lewis was not immediately available for comment.
Most of the 94 federal district courts and 13 appellate courts have yet to publicly announce their shutdown plans.
Contact Zoe Tillman at email@example.com.