Federal courts about to run out of cash, ABA president says

Tuesday - 10/15/2013, 1:28pm EDT

Jim Silkenat, president, American Bar Association

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Federal courts are using money from filing fees and long-term appropriations to stay open during the shutdown. But the judiciary's administrative office says even that money could run out by the end of this week.

"The process of slow down has already started," said Jim Silkenat, president of the American Bar Association. "Unlike the prior shutdown of the U.S. government, this one has been preceded by a year-plus of sequestration, which had already cut down courts and their operation to a bare minimum."

Jim Silkenat, president, American Bar Association

Silkenat told the Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp Tuesday fiscal constraints are forcing many district courts to layoff or furlough their employees.

"It's all of courts' staff — translators, security guards, maintenance people, everything else that makes a court actually function on a day-to-day basis," Silkenat said.

The shutdown is also impacting which cases move forward. He said most civil cases, by and large, will wind down, but criminal cases are another matter.

"Criminal trials won't be able to proceed because prosecutors who are also under budgetary constraints don't have the body count to do the investigations, to do all the other things that are involved in a trial in addition to actually prosecuting the case in court," he said.

For example, the chief judge in the District of Southern New York has placed a stay on the majority of proceedings led by the government.

"A court is just like any other institution," Silkenat said. "You have maintenance people, you have electricians. How do you keep the lights on? How do you keep the air conditioning operating? All of those things are in play already, and courts have been trying to figure out, 'Well, if we closed Tuesdays, is that enough to get us through the week? What if we don't do maintenance on anything? What if we turn all the lights off in this wing of the building?'"

The delays caused by the shutdown will only exacerbate a strained legal process already burdened by cuts from sequestration.

"It's enormously frustrating and will wind up costing both individuals and the government generally, and therefore U.S. taxpayers, much more eventually to get things started up again," Silkenat said.

Once the shutdown ends, courts will have to play a game of catch-up, putting some cases on hold in order to stretch resources to cover essential cases first.

"All of the cases dealing with employment law matters or corporate contracts, those are just delayed," Silkenat said. "Courts aren't able to resolve disputes. Businesses aren't able to proceed with employment decisions, hiring decisions, business decisions. And then you have all of the things facing individuals — immigration matters, family custody matters — all sorts of issues people need to have resolved by courts to live their lives to function in society. All that's put off until Congress does what it's supposed to do and passes a budget."

The ABA's point of view is that Congress needs to adopt a budget that not only addresses the costs of the shutdown but also the impact of sequestration over the last year.

"The amounts that have been cut from the federal judicial budgets are really unacceptable," Silkenat said. "We have to have a fully functioning judiciary. That's what the Constitution requires and what Congress, at the moment, is not providing. Without that, all the problems that society looks to courts to solve aren't being solved."

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