Federal courts face shutdown as well under impasse

AP News
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Posted: Mar 15, 2011 3:31 PM
Federal courts face shutdown as well under impasse

The nation's courts may be forced to close down if the current budget battle between Republicans and Democrats leads to a government shutdown, a federal judge said Tuesday.

If the government shuts down, "litigation might be grinding to halt for a while," said Chief Judge David Sentelle of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Sentelle is also chairman of the Executive Committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States, the policy-making body for the federal courts. The judges have been meeting in Washington this week.

Federal judges would still get paid because under the Constitution, judges' pay cannot be decreased, Sentelle said. But no other federal employees in the courthouses, like clerks, stenographers, bailiffs and security guards, would get paychecks, making it difficult if not impossible to hear cases, he said.

Also, jury trials would have to end because there would be no money to pay jurors to compensate for them missing work, he said.

Congress is working on legislation that would temporarily avert a government shutdown on Saturday. The legislation is needed to prevent a partial government shutdown when a stopgap funding bill expires Friday at midnight.

Democrats and Republicans remain deadlocked over legislation funding day-to-day agency operations, which have been mostly frozen at 2010 levels since October of last year.

Because of that, court officials already are already deferring payment to some court-appointed lawyers, Sentelle said.

If the government shuts down, Sentelle said they would ask essential personnel to work anyway and get their money after a budget is approved. "We've been there before and it's not something you want to ask your employees to do," Sentelle said.

Without personnel to hear cases, some suspected criminals could be released from prison because their case was not heard before a judge within a required deadline.