As if the current judicial vacancy crisis wasn’t enough, now a group of federal judges is warning that a government shutdown over budget issues could lead to courts closing, accused criminals going free, and Americans waiting even longer for access to justice. Judge David Sentelle, chairman of the 27-member Executive Committee of the U.S. Judicial Conference, told reporters that a government shutdown could have “potentially dire consequences” for the courts:
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.
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.
A government shutdown would be a one-two punch to the federal courts, which are already severely hampered by a vacancy crisis caused by politically motivated gridlock in the Senate confirmation process. As of March 8, there were almost 100 seats open on the federal bench, 41 of which have been declared “judicial emergencies” by the Administrative Office of the Courts.
Too often the courts are forced to be a pawn in political maneuvering in Washington—in this case, with “dire consequences” for ordinary Americans seeking justice.