Shutdown starting to affect federal court operations

Although the federal court system managed to find sufficient “no year” funding to stay open one more week (until January 18), the ongoing federal government shutdown has begun to affect the system’s daily operations. Several district courts are reportedly staying some civil cases, especially those involving the U. S. government as a party. Courts are also cutting back on operational spending such as travel, supplies, and new equipment.

All court employees are continuing to receive full pay as of now, but if the shutdown continues beyond the 18th, non-essential employees would be furloughed and essential employees will continue to work without a paycheck. In small district courts like the Northern District of Iowa, staffing is already sufficiently thin that all employees would be considered essential even if funds were to run out.

As bad as this news is for the courts, it dramatically illustrates the importance and wisdom of the AO’s internal budgeting operations. As I have discussed elsewhere, it was not until the late 1930s that the federal court system obtained control over its own budget. Even though the courts cannot control how much money they receive from Congress, the ability to manage that money with forethought is exactly why they have been able to weather the shutdown (at least for now) while other federal government offices have closed or reduced operations.

Consider, for example, the dire situation at the Justice Department, where the Antitrust and Civil Divisions already have reportedly furloughed more than half of their staffs. As a Bloomberg story explains:

A continued shutdown could seriously hamper some of the civil division’s broad and crucial mandates that range from ensuring healthy market competition and weeding out Medicare fraud to defending the U.S. in lawsuits and recouping money for the Treasury. The effect could then spill over into the department’s criminal division and federal courts, a scenario that could jeopardize law enforcement nationwide.

Not good news. Not good at all.

 

The coming impact of the shutdown on the federal courts

The United States Courts will run out of funding this coming Friday, January 11. If the federal government is not funded and operating by that date, case processing will be immediately affected. While the likely impact will vary from district to district, it is certain that civil cases will suffer first, with trials and hearings being postponed as the courts dedicate their essential staff to criminal proceedings. Bloomberg Law has a good look at how the courts are handling the situation.

We are already starting to see some negative effects on civil cases in certain districts. Should the shutdown linger, one would expect to see existing civil cases settle at higher rates, and future cases filed either in state courts or in private arbitration settings. None of this, of course, is good business for the federal court system. Let’s hope there is a resolution soon.

 

Federal courts will still operate during shutdown

The United States Courts will use court fees and reserve resources to operate during the current government shutdown. The Courts can continue to operate for about three weeks, until January 11, 2019.

West Virginia Supreme Court supports legislative oversight of its budget

Earlier this week, members of the West Virginia Supreme Court voted to support a state constitutional amendment that would confer greater legislative oversight of the court’s budget. The decision comes in the wake of a series of spending scandals that rocked the court and led to the impeachment trials of four of its members.

Amendment 2 would allow the legislature to reduce the Court’s budget by as much as 15 percent in a given year. It will go to the voters in November.

The amendment has been publicly supported by Justice Beth Walker, who was publicly reprimanded in lieu of impeachment earlier this month, and Chief Justice Margaret Workman, whose own impeachment trial was blocked this week by a specially seated Supreme Court on separation-of-powers grounds. The public support is a smart legitimacy-restoring move for both Walker and Workman, who have been accused of facilitating abuse the Court’s finances.

Federal judiciary issues $7.22B budget request for FY19

Representatives of the federal judiciary testified before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government today, issuing a budget request for $7.22 billion for Fiscal Year 2019. The request reflects an overall increase of 3.2 percent to maintain current services and fund priority initiatives — including $95 million for cybersecurity.

Seven billion dollars is nothing to sneeze at, but it represents a tiny fraction of the overall national budget (currently proposed at $4.41 trillion for FY19). The requested judicial budget is one percent of the White House’s 2019 allocation for national defense alone. It is, in the end, a remarkably small amount of money to fund the operations of  an entire branch of government.

N.B. — in the link above, the U.S. Courts helpfully included a video of the entire hearing before the House Appropriations Subcommittee. Remarkably, this act of transparency did not hopelessly compromise the integrity of the federal judiciary. It’s time to bring similar video technology into the courtroom.

Iowa Chief Justice sounds warning on budget cuts

Iowa Chief Justice Mark Cady, in his annual state of the judiciary speech, recently warned that years of stagnant funding for the courts are “beginning to tear at the very fabric and operation of our mission.”  State funding to the court system for Fiscal Year 2018 remains the same as FY 2017 and lower than in FY2016. From the Des Moines Register:

Today, 182 fewer people are employed by the court system than one year ago, Cady said — a 10 percent reduction in workforce. That includes 115 essential positions that have gone unfilled, he said. Judicial branch employees include judges and magistrates, clerks of court, court reporters, IT staff, juvenile court officers and other administrative staff.

The reduced staffing has caused delays, Cady said, forcing the judicial branch to back off from a promise made two years ago to try all cases on the date scheduled without delays.

“We have been forced to walk back from this pledge because we do not have enough people to do the work to keep it,” Cady said.