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.
Late last year, the Cook County (Ill.) Board ordered the termination of nearly 180 county court employees, in light of rampant financial problems throughout the county. That action spurred Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans to file a lawsuit against the Board to enjoin the layoffs. Chief Judge Evans argued that even though the Board had power to set the courts’ budget, it did not have the authority to target individual employees for layoffs.
The Lake County Circuit Court agreed in December, issuing a temporary restraining order against the county to prevent the layoffs. Now, nearly eight months later, the parties have reached a settlement.
Both sides are claiming victory. The Board is saying that the settlement amount is “much lower than what was initially demanded” and that it will promote efficiencies in the court system. Chief Judge Evans points to the loss of only 22 jobs (as opposed the the initial 180), and his belief that “the lawsuit made clear that the county board had no authority to lay off court employees.”
The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts has announced that all federal courts will remain open for during the current government shutdown, using reserve funds that can last approximately three weeks. The AO further explains:
If the shutdown were to continue past three weeks, and exhaust the Judiciary’s resources, the Judiciary would then operate under the terms of the Anti-Deficiency Act, which allows work to continue during a lapse in appropriations if it is necessary to support the exercise of Article III judicial powers. Under this scenario, each court and federal defender’s office would determine the staffing resources necessary to support such work.
Funding is the court system’s most prominent externally acquired resource. Hopefully the courts’ ability to work through cases is not adversely affected by a long shutdown.
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.
One by one, eight state trial judges have recused themselves from presiding over a criminal case against a former New Mexico state senator. Phil Griego was indicted in June on 22 counts, including perjury and embezzlement. Among other things, Griego is alleged to have spent funds from his re-election account after resigning from the state senate in March 2015.
None of the eight judges identified a specific reason for recusing themselves from the case, with each indicating only “good cause” for the recusal. The Santa Fe New Mexican reports:
Former state Supreme Court Justice Patricio Serna said one factor in the decision by so many Santa Fe judges to recuse themselves from Griego’s case might have been their role lobbying legislators for court funding.
If the need to obtain court funds from the legislature compromises judges to this extent, interdependence can become a danger to the administration of justice.