government shutdown budget

Dark days in Washington are having an impact on the federal courts. (Photo: Los Angeles Times)

The national news is all about the federal government shutdown lately, and everything about it is in debate—from its cause to its effects.

Although it will end sometime (there I go being all optimistic), the effect is my focus today—especially the effect on courts.

A few story’s in the past few days have addressed the shutdown’s impact on the courts. For example, in a story slugged “Nation’s judges brace for shutdown’s full impact,” National Law Journal reporter Zoe Tillman writes:

“As the end of the first week approached with no budget deal, … chief judges of federal trial and appellate courts across the country grappled with what to do once the money runs out.”

“‘We’re all working through it, trying to figure out where we’re going to go right now,” Chief Judge Morrison England Jr. of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California said. “We’re in uncharted territory right now.’”

“Judges said they received guidance from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts on preparing for a shutdown, but each court was coming up with its own plan.”

The ABA Journal reports that courts are open “but not operating normally.” And in case the already-slow judicial confirmation process needed another roadblock, the shutdown provided one.

In what may (or may not be) partisan brinksmanship, lawmakers (mainly Democratic) have raised concerns and even scheduled hearings on the impact on the judiciary.

At a hearing yesterday, a panel of lawyers told the U.S. House Judiciary Committee that the impasse would cause great harm to the judicial system. (Read the article, also by Zoe Tillman.)

Panel of lawyers addresses House Judiciary Committee on the impact on courts of the government shutdown, Oct. 8, 2013 (Photo: Blog of Legal Times)

Panel of lawyers addresses House Judiciary Committee on the impact on courts of the government shutdown, Oct. 8, 2013 (Photo: Blog of Legal Times)

Another wrinkle came as the executive branch—in the persona of federal prosecutors—and the judicial branch disagreed over whether trials could be postponed. As the Blog of the Legal Times reports about the DC Circuit:

“Citing the government shutdown, U.S. Justice Department lawyers urged the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to postpone certain cases set for hearings last week and through the end of this week.”

“The court, in at least seven instances and without comment, rejected the government’s requests. The private lawyers in the cases were not entirely eager to have argument hearings pushed back to a date uncertain.”

What are you seeing in your own federal practice, in Arizona or elsewhere? Have you gotten word that your case may experience delays? Have the courts’ efforts to juggle resources to maintain constitutional requirements in criminal cases caused scheduling issues in civil trials?

Alabama Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb

Two seemingly unrelated stories came across my desk this week. But in their own ways, they demonstrate modern-day challenges faced by the courts — and by anyone who finds their legal matter brought before a judge.

The first story comes from Alabama. There, faced with severe budget cuts, the Supreme Court Chief Justice, Sue Bell Cobb, has ordered a reduction in the number of days for trial. She also authorized the closure of all courts one day per week.

“The Chief Justice said years of underfunding are catching up. She predicted defendants will sit in jail longer while waiting for trial, people with civil suits and divorce cases will wait much longer to have them heard by a judge, and the courts’ ability to generate fines and fees to help fund state government will decline.”

In what may be the quotation of the year, Cobb said, “The courts are not a nicety. They are a necessity.”

I had the pleasure of meeting Chief Justice Cobb back in January, when I attended a criminal justice conference in New York. She spoke eloquently about the challenges facing state courts. Little did attendees know that Alabama would provide a graphic example of how bad things are getting.

Today’s open letter by the American Bar Association President stresses the difficulties. Stephen Zack recommends enactment of legislation that would provide a new funding source for courts:

“The answer is to leverage an existing program in the Department of Treasury to collect long-overdue court-ordered fines, restitution and other financial obligations from federal tax refunds. The National Center for State Courts estimates that there’s an accumulated total of $15 billion in such fees. Courts and crime victims do not have the resources to collect on those avoiding their responsibilities. This program would offer a practical, fair way to secure those funds.”

More on that as the story develops.

The second story was a Q&A with a law professor on the topic of “life without parole: the new death penalty.”

Read the complete conversation with Virginia Law Professor Josh Bowers.

We are unlikely to see outlets like the Arizona Republic cover something as inside-baseball as whether ASU Law School should move forward in its scheme to shed all state funding.

That’s a shame, for the way we train our professionals has a lot to do with the kind of Arizona we have now and in the coming decades.

But in any case, it was good to read the ASU State Press coverage of the topic. In the story, we see that the decision to become “self-sustaining” is seen by some as a way to be sustained on at the backs of student wallets.

Read the complete story here.


Arizona’s budget mess rode the top edge of the Arizona Republic today, which means we may be getting back to a focus on our state dysfunction.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer

In their coverage, the Republic put two of their hardest-working reporters to the task of explaining our dilemma: Mary Jo Pitzl and Mary K. Reinhart. The Marys Two did a great job of detailing the proposal issued by Governor Jan Brewer. And in so doing, they demonstrated just how bad things are.

Mary Jo Pitzl wrote the cover story on the budget plan. Mary K. Reinhart wrote on cuts to mental health (a timely and tragic analogue).

Along with their stories was good coverage of cuts to university funding, written by Alia Beard Rau, and a Republic editorial—the point of which still escapes me. But then again, I only read it twice.

A few takeaways I had from today’s news:

  • Nowhere in the Governor’s proposal is there any serious mention of “other funding sources.” Yes, we may charge families an annual fee to visit their loved ones in prison (because, according to Corrections Director Charles Ryan, visits are “a privilege,” and not a valuable part of helping an inmate re-immerse into communities). And there is an acknowledgment that certain state cuts will result in property tax increases. But this administration won’t touch other possibilities with a 10-foot poll.
  • There was scant comment from others who may have a different view. I imagine that will come later, but we may also want to look at the views of Arizona residents. Just last fall, in the run-up to a vote on the one-cent sales tax, Arizonans indicated that they were willing to have their taxes raised for certain things they valued. Not all things, mind you. But they genuinely fear what appears to be an inexorable slide to the Detroit-ing of our state. Cutting our way out of a problem may not be as popular as the Governor’s Office believes—especially when people see their other taxes go up, more mentally ill on the streets, and the only state growth area being prisons. Do we believe our young people will choose to remain in a state like that when they get the chance to leave?
  • The paper’s editorial essentially said that we all need to get involved and tell our state leaders what we value. Um, OK. But along the way, it also informed us that:

Brewer has been a supporter of the universities, but her budget would slash their state funding by 20 percent, on top of previous cuts. Community colleges would lose half of their state support.”

  • It was the first clause that made me spill hot coffee on myself. “A supporter”? Well, she did support the one-cent sales tax, I’ll give her that. But I couldn’t think of any other evidence to support the statement.
  • And then I thought, maybe it’s like this: My neighbors have a loud party that goes into the wee hours. I’ve never really understood the appeal of those neighbors, or even of music, come to think of it, and I’ve always thought the neighbors were too hoity-toity and think too much of themselves. So I grumble, stomp around the house, and consider calling the police. But my wife convinces me just to go to bed, and I do that rather than report them. And later I overcharge them when they buy lemonade from my kids. So I guess I could be called “a supporter” of their party. You know, like that.
  • In the main story, John Arnold is quoted. He is the Director if the Governor’s Office of Strategic Planning and Budgeting (whose title should be trimmed to “Budget Director”). He was asked about the Governor’s proposal to seek a waiver from federal mandates that require the state to pay for coverage of “childless adults and curb funding to some low-income parents, and blind and disabled people.” His assessment was that “It’s really cataclysmic if we don’t get the waiver.”
  • From what I’ve read about John Arnold, he sounds like a good guy with good experience. But he may want to look up the dictionary definition of cataclysm. Or, even easier, he should speak to some of those disabled Arizonans whose lives are about to be plunged into disarray and worse if he gets his waiver. They would give him some true insight into the word’s meaning.