Federal Judges Push Back
In some courts, all employees 'essential.'
A growing number of federal chief judges have had enough.
Frustrated by the budget stalemate in Congress, many judges across the country declared all employees essential in the face of a shutdown—a bold but necessary move, the judges said, to ensure basic court operations past the judiciary’s funding date of October 17.
In more than two dozen courts, from busy urban districts in New York and Chicago to rural areas, judges went against guidance from the judiciary urging them not to enter broad orders deeming all staff essential. Judges said severe budget cuts over the past year left them no choice.
"We're drowning," said Chief Judge Anne Conway of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida, who declared all employees essential on October 7. "We're treading water to keep our heads up. There's just nobody left."
The federal judiciary has enough money to keep courts fully operational through at least October 17. Beyond that, the chief judges of district, appeals and bankruptcy courts were instructed by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts to figure out a shutdown plan for their respective courts.
Under federal law, only employees deemed "essential" could keep working if Congress failed to pass a budget by the start of the fiscal year on October 1. Now almost two weeks in, chief judges across the country said furloughs were off the table if the shutdown outlasted the judiciary's funding.
At least two dozen of the 94 federal district courts and 13 appellate courts had publicly declared all employees essential as of October 11. Most courts had not finalized or announced plans.
The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit led the pack, declaring everyone — from law clerks to human resources personnel — essential on September 30. Other courts followed suit after the fiscal year began October 1 with no budget from Congress.
Chief Judge Ruben Castillo of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois declared all employees essential on October 4. "We just could not figure out, with the reduced staff that we have, a way to continue to operate without our personnel," he said.
However, the courts are not united. Other chief judges announced shutdown plans that did involve furloughs, which they said were more in line with the spirit of the law.