At the start of the government shutdown October 1, the federally funded District of Columbia court system announced furloughs for about one-third of its employees. Over the past week, though, the courts have started calling certain furloughed employees back to work to handle a crunch in operations.
D.C. Superior Court officials, for instance, are bringing back several employees needed to manage criminal cases, said Anne Wicks, the courts' executive officer. The civil division of Superior Court had stopped issuing documents needed to carry out evictions in landlord and tenant cases, but Wicks said employees will be brought back to work to resume those operations.
For lawyers appointed by judges in criminal, child abuse and neglect, and other types of cases, there's no relief in sight. Without an appropriation from Congress, the court suspended payments to court-appointed lawyers, jurors, witnesses and experts.
"We will be paying all those persons once the shutdown is over," Wicks said. "We're tracking everything."
Criminal defense lawyer Mark Rollins of Washington’s Rollins & Chan said court-appointed private defense lawyers, who are paid under the Criminal Justice Act, haven't gotten a check since mid-September. Rollins said about 90 percent of his practice is court-appointed work.
"Everyone is just doing their job and doing what they're supposed to do," he said. "You have ethical duties…and our ethical duties come first."
The local courts in Washington have scaled back operations during the shutdown, including cancelling courthouse marriage ceremonies and postponing a judicial swearing-in event. The court was almost forced to put off the swearing-in ceremony for new members of the D.C. Bar on October 7, but staff from the bar stepped in to assist.
Washington's court system is funded by Congress, but it isn't part of the federal judiciary. The federal courts found money to continue operating at least through October 15. The local courts aren't part of the local D.C. government, which is using reserve funds to avoid the full effect of a shutdown, at least for now. (Congress approves the city's budget.)
Mark Herzog, associate director of the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program, said there had been an uptick in activity during the shutdown at the probate resource center in Superior Court, which offers free assistance on probate matters. Herzog said attorneys in the resource center were encountering furloughed government workers coming to court to take care of outstanding probate issues now that they had more free time.
Lawyers reported cases seemed to be running smoothly since the shutdown. "The judge still sits on the bench in each of these courts as they always would," said Jennifer Berger, supervisory legal aid attorney with Legal Counsel for the Elderly.
A spokesman for the U.S. Marshals Service for Superior Court said no marshals working in the D.C. courts were furloughed.
The court is making changes to its shutdown plan on a case-by-case basis, Wicks said. "There is a desire and a directive from [the Office of Management and Budget] to have fidelity to the original plan," she said. In criminal matters, Wicks said employees were being brought back to handle records sealing, mental competency screenings and community service placements for defendants.
Wicks said she expected to field requests from the human resources department for additional staff. Three of the department's 24 full-time employees are working during the shutdown and have been "inundated" with shutdown-related questions and requests, Wicks said. She added the court was also considering bringing back a staff member part-time to open the court's supply room.