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U.S. federal courts to remain open if government shuts down

A policeman and his bomb sniffing dog walk in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, April 17, 2013. REUTERS/Larry Downing
A policeman and his bomb sniffing dog walk in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, April 17, 2013. REUTERS/Larry Downing

By Joseph Ax

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Federal courts would continue to hear and decide cases without interruption if the U.S. government shuts down on Tuesday morning as a result of congressional gridlock.

However, the Justice Department has said its attorneys would seek to curtail or postpone non-critical civil matters in the event of a shutdown. In addition, some judicial staffers could be furloughed, while others will be forced to work without pay until the shutdown ends.

Federal courthouses would remain open under the terms of the Anti-Deficiency Act, the federal law that calls for "essential" work to continue in the event that federal funding is frozen. Most judicial services are considered essential; judges would keep working, legal filings would still be processed and federal defenders would continue to be assigned to indigent defendants.

For the first two weeks, the courts would use revenue from filing fees and long-term appropriations that are not part of the annual budget to pay its staffers as normal, according to a memorandum from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts sent last week. Courts were encouraged to conserve as much as possible by deferring non-crucial expenses.

Once those funds are exhausted, employees deemed non-essential would be furloughed without pay. Those considered essential would continue to work without pay, though they would be entitled to retroactive money after the government resumes business. Jurors would also be forced to wait until after the shutdown ends for payment.

The chief judge in each district would have broad latitude to determine which services and staff members were "essential" and which could be put on hold for the duration of the shutdown.

"Each court is going to be different," said Karen Redmond, a spokeswoman for the administrative office.

In many cases, a government shutdown would mean little change in the day-to-day operation of the courts, which would continue to accept filings, hold hearings and conduct trials.

In New York, Loretta Preska, the chief judge for the Southern District, said in a memo to staff that she had deemed all current employees essential.

A spokeswoman for the district, Stephanie Cirkovich, said, "We're not going to see an interruption in service, even after the 15th."

Thomas Bruton, the court clerk for the Northern District of Illinois in Chicago, said officials there would not make any determination regarding essential staff until they know for certain that the shutdown will last more than two weeks.

DEFERRING PURCHASES, PAYING FOR TRAVEL

The memo from the courts' central administrative office said judges should not prioritize between criminal and civil cases. During a shutdown, courts would eschew non-essential expenses, such as training, purchasing equipment and supplies and paying for travel.

While judges would continue to hear cases, the Justice Department said it would ask to postpone appearances in civil and bankruptcy cases as long as it did not compromise the safety of human life or the protection of property under the terms of the Anti-Deficiency Act.

The courts' administrative office instructed judges to "be sympathetic" to such requests. In the event that a judge orders a government attorney to appear, the Justice Department said it would comply and provide the minimum staffing needed to do so.

Criminal cases would continue to be heard without delay or interruption, the Justice Department said.

Judicial officials cautioned that furloughing any staff would strain a court system already feeling the effects of the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration. And they said that the financial impact on employees and court-appointed lawyers who would not be paid during a shutdown should not be minimized.

"They still have mortgages," said Edward Friedland, the executive director of New York's Southern District. "They still have bills to pay."

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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