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The Journal Gazette

  • FILE: March for Life participants gather in front of the E. Ross Adair Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019 1:00 am

Court system facing issues in shutdown

Funding set to run out next week

MATTHEW LEBLANC | The Journal Gazette

The government shutdown is affecting federal courts, and administrators might be faced with tough decisions after next week.

That's when funding for the courts runs out and, if Congress doesn't make more money available, they will have to begin cutting back on everything that is not “essential work.”

Already, courts including the U.S. District Court in Fort Wayne have been operating using fee balances and other funding sources not dependent on the government since Dec. 22, when the shutdown began amid an impasse between President Donald Trump and lawmakers over funding for a wall along the country's southern border.

Without new funding by Jan. 25, courts will be asked to hold off on “non-mission critical expenses” such as hiring new employees, travel unrelated to pending cases and some contracts.

What that means for the local court is not clear. Robert Trgovich, the clerk of the U.S. District Court for the area including Fort Wayne, Hammond, South Bend and Lafayette, did not return a call Tuesday from The Journal Gazette.

Local officials referred questions to Trgovich.

But federal employees who work in the courthouses and other court officials said they continue to wait on guidance from the government.

Funding had been set to expire this Friday, and officials learned Tuesday afternoon courts would be funded through next week.

“The court, like others across the nation, has curtailed spending to just bare essentials over the last few weeks,” Doria Lynch, special projects manager for the U.S. District Court in Indianapolis, said in an email. “These efforts are what allow the judiciary to continue its operations for another week.”

Criminal cases are expected to move forward.

“If existing funds run out and new appropriated funds do not become available, the judiciary will operate under the terms of the Anti-Deficiency Act, which allows 'essential work' to continue during a lapse in appropriations,” according to a statement posted last week to the website for federal courts.

Ryan Holmes, a spokesman for U.S. Attorney Thomas L. Kirsch II, confirmed prosecutors are working without paychecks. He provided a statement from the U.S. Department of Justice calling on individual U.S. attorney's offices to determine which employees are essential to ensure “public safety and national security missions continue.”

Many of the employees including assistant prosecutors and staff supporting criminal prosecutions likely will remain at work, the statement says.

Assistant Federal Community Defender Thomas O'Malley said his office has funding in place to provide lawyers to defendants for another few weeks.

“We were just notified we have funding through March, so we're OK,” he said.

While criminal cases will continue, civil cases might stop or slow down.

The Justice Department has asked some courts to suspend or postpone civil cases in which the government is a party “for a limited period, subject to further consideration or until appropriated funds become available.”

“Civil litigation will be curtailed or postponed to the extent this can be done without compromising to a significant degree the safety of human life or the protection of property,” the statement provided by the U.S. attorney's office says.

The government shutdown is the longest in history, beating the previous record of 21 days.

mleblanc@jg.net