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Fed Shutdown Doesn’t Stop Wheels Of Justice

by Melissa Bailey | Oct 1, 2013 3:06 pm

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Melissa Bailey Photo Despite the budget meltdown in Washington, New Haven’s federal courthouse will run at full tilt for at least for 10 days.

Chief U.S. District Court Judge Janet Hall announced that news in an interview Tuesday. It was the first day of a federal “shutdown” prompted by the failure of Congress to agree on a budget for the fiscal year that started Oct. 1.

“Court is open for business as normal,” Hall said.

The court will remain open, and fully staffed, for 10 business days. The judicial branch has money to do that because the courts have a flow of money from fees, as well as federal appropriations that are not tied to a certain fiscal year, Hall said.

If the Congressional impasses continues after those 10 business days expire, on Oct. 15, Hall will have to make a decision. She’ll determine “who in the court is performing work that is essential to our Article III court powers,” she said. Starting Oct. 15, essential workers will be asked to work, but they likely wouldn’t be paid until after the shutdown ended, she said.

Hall, who oversees the federal courts in New Haven, Bridgeport and Hartford, said she has not performed a review of which personnel are “essential.” But the courts have suffered significant cutbacks in recent years, she said: Statewide clerical staff have been reduced from 64 to 56 in the past three years.

“It will be difficult to say people are not essential, because we have so few people doing the work,” Hall said.

Hall said her bigger concern is how the courts will continue to function in the long term. The courts’ budget was cut by 8.3 percent during the federal “sequester,” automated budget cuts that took effect earlier this year. If Congress authorizes a flat-funded budget, the courts may have to start calling for furloughs as soon as Jan. 1 to stay afloat, she said.

Courts have already been hit hard by budget cuts, she said: Federal public defenders had to take six furlough days (unpaid days off) in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. Because they weren’t working on some Fridays, the public defenders’ office had to decline nine cases, which were assigned instead to private attorneys. Hall said she predicts those cases will end up costing taxpayers more because of the cost of using outside lawyers instead of public defenders. 

Elsewhere around town, most federal services and offices were open Tuesday.

The U.S. Postal Service did not stop.

Tweed-New Haven Airport and its air-traffic controllers were operating as usual, according to airport chief Tim Larson.

Most offices in the Robert N. Giaimo Federal Building on Court Street were open, except for the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Some employees of the U.S. Attorney’s Office who handle civil cases were furloughed Tuesday.

Benefits programs such as Social Security were not interrupted.

All Veterans Administration medical facilities and clinics “will remain fully operational, including pharmacy, inpatient/outpatient services,” wrote Tammy A. Marzik of the Connecticut Department of Veterans’ Affairs. “Additionally the compensation and pension claims processing and payments will continue to operate.”

“Should the shutdown continue through the end of October, there is concern that there may be an interruption of these benefits,” Marzik wrote. But Congress still has a whole month to settle on a budget before that interruption would take place.

Meanwhile, a new Quinnipiac University poll shows Americans overwhelmingly opposing the Republican position in Congress of tying a repeal of Obamacare to keeping the government open, Hugh McQuaid reports in this story.

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