One major entity that was affected by the longest-ever government shutdown was the federal court system, where civil rights cases and prisoner petitions make up a substantial part of the docket. Although federal employees have returned to work, it is possible a shutdown may occur again and once again have an impact on the courts.
During the month-long government shutdown, the federal courts remained open. The courts were able to do this through deferring non-critical operating costs (such as delaying new hires and non-case related travel) and utilizing court filing fees and other available balances. However, the Administrative Office has stated that most of the measures were temporary stopgaps, and the Judiciary will face many deferred payment obligations.
Although the courts remained physically open, this did not mean that all cases moved forward. Assistant U.S. Attorneys who work in the Civil Division were furloughed, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office sought a stay of all civil cases where the United States or an agency, corporation, officer, or employee of the United States is a party until Congress restores appropriations to the Department of Justice. Additionally, the U.S. Attorney’s Office requested that the courts extend all current deadlines commensurate with the duration of the lapse of appropriations.
Various district courts have decided to handle the requests by the U.S. Attorney’s office differently. For example, on January 9, 2019, the Southern District of California (San Diego, El Centro) issued a general order staying all cases where the United States is a party until the shutdown is over. This includes civil rights cases involving the Bureau of Prisons, whose correctional officers were also currently working without pay. Other districts, such as the Central District, handled these requests on a case by case basis.
The freeze on hiring within the courts compounded an already existing problem. Currently, there are 119 judicial vacancies or about 18 percent of the 677 federal judgeships. This shortage has affected how quickly all federal cases are able to be heard – even when budgets are funded.
If the shutdown happens again, court officials have indicated that court employees may only receive partial paychecks or face the possibility of being furloughed. Additionally, many operational decisions will go to the district and appeals court executives. For example, there has been discussion of whether the courts may suspend court-sponsored mediation, which may be seen as less essential.