Friday, January 25, 2019

Federal Courts and the Government Shutdown

Courthouse building with American flag
Photo by Bonnie Kittle on Unsplash

The government shutdown is about to extend to the federal courts.  The courts actually have been impacted already--for example, some government litigation has been put on hold--but the effects are about to expand.  The federal courts have announced that they only have enough funding to continue operations through the end of January, or February 1 at the very latest.  That is just next week.  If the shutdown stretches past next week, the Antideficiency Act kicks in and the courts will be limited to "essential" services, as determined on a court-by-court basis.  

No one knows exactly what that will look like if the courts go into essential-operations mode.  Criminal cases should proceed in every court.  Civil cases will be impacted, but the effects will vary by court.  We should expect to see backlogs in dockets.  Judges and staff needed for essential services will have to work unpaid, the same as other federal workers.  Though jury duty has never been a lucrative gig, jurors (at least temporarily) will have to go without jury pay and travel reimbursement.  If the courts run out of money, these immediate effects are likely just the tip of the iceberg.  For the 12 months ending September 30, 2018, the average time from filing to disposition of criminal cases was 7.0 months, and for civil cases was 9.2 months.  For civil cases that went to trial, the average time to trial was 27.3 months.  It will be interesting to see what happens to the length of legal proceedings.

For more on the consequences of a federal government shutdown, including but not limited to the courts, see this Congressional Research Service report issued last month.

UPDATE (1/25/2019 1PM): The White House just announced a (temporary) reopening of the government. It is being reported that President Trump has reached a deal with Congress that would restore funding through February 15. It looks like the courts have dodged a bullet, at least for now. It will still be interesting to see if the shutdown's initial effects will lead to a noticeable lengthening of dockets and pace of proceedings.

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