The United States government began the process of a partial shutdown Tuesday as the contentions and lengthy dispute over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act—President Barack Obama’s signature health care reform law—reached a tipping point. Approximately 800,000 federal employees have been told not to report to work and a number of others are scheduled to be furloughed if the shutdown persists.
New York federal court officials have put in place a series of contingency plans in the event of the anticipated shutdown—the first government shutdown since a budget battle between Republicans in Congress and Democratic President Bill Clinton in the winter of 1995-1996.
On Sept. 26, five days before the shutdown was announced, the Administrative Office for the U.S. Courts released a statement saying that “[i]n the event of a government shutdown on Oct. 1, 2013, the federal Judiciary will remain open for business for approximately 10 business days.”
Optimistic that the stalemate between the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and the Democratic-controlled Senate will cease in a rapid manner, the federal courts will reassess on Oct. 15. Until then, “[a]ll proceedings and deadlines remain in effect as scheduled, unless otherwise advised…and [c]ase Management/Electronic Case Files (CM/ECF) will remain in operation for the electronic filing of documents with courts.”
As the U.S. justice system is designed to protect “human life and property,” the Department of Justice (DOJ) announced, in its contingency plan, that a “high percentage of [justice] activities and employees…can continue during a lapse in appropriations.”
At present, criminal litigation taking place in Brooklyn’s federal courts will not be interrupted since the DOJ deems criminal litigation as “an activity essential to the safety of human life and the protection of property.”
Civil litigation, however, will be limited and curtailed where possible. The determination of which employees, associated with civil litigation in Brooklyn’s federal courts, including EEOC claims, bankruptcy court, and federal civil rights cases, will rest on those essential to the “safety of human life or the protection of property,” the DOJ noted, and Robert Nardoza, spokesman for Eastern District U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch, confirmed.
Carol Bagley Amon, Eastern District Chief Judge, noted that she will not “prejudge” the forms of cost-saving measures to be used if no federal budget is agreed upon by Oct. 15 and will not prepare any orders as to essential staff "until it's necessary to make that determination."
Public sector attorneys, such as the Federal Defenders of New York, are already recovering from weeks of temporary unpaid leave during the government sequester earlier this year. At the time of the December 2012-January 2013 sequester, many public sector organizations spoke out about the damaging effects of severe budget cuts. Carey Dunne, president of the New York City Bar Association, noted that the "cuts to legal services funding that would result from sequestration would make life even more difficult for those who cannot obtain legal assistance to meet basic human needs...[t]he result will be more harm to families and children and more, not less, reliance on the government-funded safety net."
Concerned for the safety of those who enter the federal courts, Stewart Aaron, president of the New York County Lawyers' Association, worried that "[s]equestration undoubtedly will result in an unacceptable decrease in court security and operations and will compromise access to justice in the federal courts."
Private practitioners in Brooklyn federal courts, however, are not overly concerned with the announcement of a government shutdown. “I would imagine that keeping Brooklyn’s federal court open is a high priority,” Brooklyn attorney Michael Mullen told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. “Many cases in federal court last about a year or more, so I do not think that a weeklong government shutdown will severely affect cases.”
Brooklyn employment law attorney Olga Medyukh is optimistic that the “courts are right now up and running,” but noted that “if Chapter 11 hearings in bankruptcy court are postponed, for example, this will definitely have an effect on attorneys who solely handle Chapter 11 bankruptcy cases.”
“We are all waiting to see how this will go,” Mullen said. Medyukh echoed Mullen’s opinion, noting, “right now, we are all in a wait-and-see holding pattern.”