The chairman of the Senate's Subcommittee on Bankruptcy and the Courts warned his colleagues Thursday about the harm to the federal judiciary from the government shutdown, passing along frustration that he's heard from federal trial judges.
Senator Christopher Coons (D-Del.), in a Senate floor speech, said a number of federal judges this week told him they are spending time figuring out what the shutdown means for their courts and their employees "rather than doing the job for which they were confirmed, which is to judge cases."
Coons said the federal judiciary next week will run out of the reserve funds it has been using to stay open. Each district court and circuit court is now assessing how to keep the lights and which employees will keep working without a salary. Judiciary officials said the courts are funded at least through October 17.
"The big question is, What happens then?" Coons said. "The chief judge of the bankruptcy court for the District of Delaware, my home state, told me: 'We are really in an uncertain situation, particularly when it comes to employees. I am fearful for them and how they are going to be able to pay for rent and mortgages, and provide food and day-care for their families.'"
An example from one judge was focused on what would happen with the electronic evidence presented to jurors in trials or electronic case file processing.
"But what if there is a problem? What if the technology doesn't work and a trial is disrupted? At what point does a technological glitch become a legitimate due process issue?" Coons said. "If the courtroom technology can't get an upgrade to fix a bug, will it result in a costly mistrial? The Constitution and the Sixth Amendment guarantee criminal defendants a right to a speedy trial. What happens when our courts can't live up to that Sixth Amendment guarantee because of this ongoing Federal shutdown?"
Coons also voiced his disappointment that the courts were caught up in a political spat on Capitol Hill.
"The judicial branch is not another federal agency. It is not a program that can be suspended or a benefit that can be delayed. It is a branch," Coons said. "The federal court system was created in our Constitution as the third pillar of our democracy."