Tales from the Trail

U.S. government shutdown bad for courts, judges warn

March 15, 2011

Nearly all trials and other federal court proceedings might come to a halt if the U.S. government shuts down because Congress cannot agree on the budget, the federal judiciary’s policy-making body warned.

The 27-member group, which is made up of judges from around the country and which meets twice a year, received a report warning of “potentially dire consequences” for the federal judiciary if a funding measure is not adopted soon. USA/

David Sentelle, chief judge of the U.S. appeals court in Washington, D.C., told reporters a shutdown would mean court personnel, jurors, pretrial services and others in the judiciary would not get paid.

“Litigation might be grinding to a halt for awhile,” he said after the meeting, in which members of Congress briefed the group on efforts to reach an agreement on spending.

A stopgap funding measure to keep the government operating through April 8 is expected to be approved by Congress this week. But a deal has yet to be reached on keeping the government funded through the rest of the fiscal year.

If there is a shutdown, Sentelle said courts might ask some essential personnel to come in and work without pay in the hope that they would be reimbursed under any later deal.

He said the greatest impact from a shutdown would be on trial courts, especially those near the border swamped with drug and immigration cases, rather than appellate courts.

While court-related personnel would not get paid, federal judges still would collect their salaries, Sentelle said. That is what happened during the last government shutdown in 1995.

Photo credit: Reuters/Joshua Lott (U.S. Federal Court in Tucson, Arizona)

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