How Does the Government Shutdown Affect the Justice System?

By Rebekah L. Stratton | Posted October 1, 2013

While we slept last night, Congress found itself in a stalemate on the terms of the Affordable Healthcare Act, propelling the U.S. federal government into its first shutdown in 17 years.

The federal government is the country’s largest supplier of jobs. Today more than 800,000 of the two million government employees are going into work for a few hours to check their voicemails, go through their emails, and get things in order for a furlough. These employees deemed non-essential will head home for an unpaid vacation until further notice, while a select group of essential employees will continue reporting to work to keep the departments running during the government’s partial shutdown. These employees probably won’t get paid until further down the line when Congress is divvying out money again. Of course, retro-active pay is never a guarantee during a shutdown.

While national parks and museums will be closed and 97 percent of NASA employees and 94 percent of the Environmental Protection Agency will be furloughed, departments closely related to public safety and national security will keep more employees reporting to work during the shutdown. The Department of Justice will see only 15 percent of its employees furloughed, but the Department of Defense will see 50 percent and the Department of Treasury will see 80 percent furloughed.

Within the Department of Justice, most law enforcement officials, FBI agents, Drug Enforcement Administration officials, and U.S. attorneys will continue working. All staff at federal prisons, including Public Health Service Officers and anyone who deals directly with prisoners, will keep reporting to work, too. The chairman and commissioners of the U.S. Parole Commission will continue responding to requests for emergency warrants and processing parole certificates to preserve the writ of habeas corpus. The Bureau of Prisons‘ buildings, facilities, and commisionary accounts have enough carryover funds to be able to pay for expenses during a government shutdown such as this. Any hiring or training of new non-essential Department of Justice employees will be postponed, however.

The federal Courts can keep operating for the next two weeks using reserve funds. If Congress is still in a stalemate after these two weeks, the Courts will call in only judges and a few essential employees. The Supreme Court will not be affected, at least not until its new term starts next week on October 7. The Department of Justice will suspend many civil cases during the shutdown.

According to the Department of Justice’s FY 2014 Contingency Plan, “Civil litigation will be curtailed or postponed to the extent that this can be done without compromising to a significant degree the safety of human life or the protection of property. Litigators will need to approach the courts and request that active cases, except for those in which postponement would compromise to a significant degree the safety of human life or the protection of property, be postponed until funding is available. If a court denies such a request and orders a case to continue, the government will comply with the court’s order, which would constitute express legal authorization for the activity to continue. The Department will limit its civil litigation staffing to the minimum level needed to comply with the court’s order and to protect life and property.”

To read the contingency plan in detail, click here.




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