The Northern Mariana Islands are a U.S. commonwealth located in the tropical climes of the Pacific Ocean. Unsurprisingly, much of the Islands’ income comes from tourism, and when tourism drops, government budgets shrink.
A sharp decline in tourist arrivals after the coronavirus outbreak led the territorial governor, Ralph Torres, to implement an across-the-board budget cut of more than 28% for Fiscal Year 2020. This action trimmed the judiciary’s budget from about $5.6 million to about $4 million. But the judiciary itself apparently lacks the legal authority to reallocate spending in light of that cut, so Chief Justice Alexandro Castro has sought special permission to obtain “full reprogramming authority” in order to make the diminished budget work.
Another small but dramatic piece of evidence of how courts, like all public and private organizations, are influenced by the external environment.
As they have in other times of public emergency, the United States Courts have devised a plan to address operations in the event of a more widespread coronavirus outbreak. Many of the precautions are sensible and consistent with approaches taken by other public and private sector organizations:
[Administrator James] Duff suggested that federal courts “at a minimum” coordinate with human resources about “social distancing practices,” such as “teleworking, staying home when sick, and separation of potentially ill staff from others within the workplace.”
The memo also urged courts to emphasize good respiratory etiquette and hand-washing practices and ensure routine, regular cleaning of all frequently touched surfaces in the workplace.
Courts should also be “implementing continuity procedures, issuance of applicable orders, and other measures as necessary to ensure the continuation of necessary court functions,” Duff’s memo states.
Like many organizations, arms of government often develop plans to continue operations in the event of a natural or man-made disaster. The Nebraska state judicial system recently undertook a special version of that planning, preparing for the event of a pandemic or bioterror event. This interview with the state judge who chaired the task force to plan for a pandemic offers some fascinating insight into how (and why) the courts are getting ready.