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Citing shutdown, federal court stays many civil cases

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The federal government shutdown has led to a stay of nearly all civil actions in the U.S. courts in Evansville, Indianapolis, New Albany and Terre Haute in which the federal government has an interest.

Chief Judge Richard Young of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana signed an order Tuesday noting that since appropriations for the Department of Justice ended Sept. 30, furloughs of assistant U.S. attorneys and others resulted in an inability to represent the federal government’s interests.

“A stay of civil litigation in which the United States, is a party is necessary and appropriate under the circumstances, and it is in the interests of justice to stay civil cases, including bankruptcy cases, in which the United States is a party pending resolution of the lapse in appropriations by Congress,” according to Young’s issue granted at the government’s request.

The stay also applies to Social Security cases and all non-criminal cases and all civil matters to which the government is a party except habeas corpus proceedings under Title 28, and to 22 cases specifically identified in the order.

Young said Wednesday the order affects about 400 cases and mirrors actions being taken by chief judges in districts around the country following requests from the Department of Justice.

“A lot of their attorneys have been furloughed,” Young said of assistant U.S. attorneys who chiefly handle civil matters. He said the stay of cases should be the only step the District Court will have to take in response to the shutdown unless it becomes protracted.

“The criminal docket will move and proceed at a normal fashion until the point we would run out of money for jurors,” Young said, noting that’s not projected to happen for several months.

Jill Julian, chief of the civil division for the office of the U.S. attorney for the Southern District, said five of eight assistant U.S. attorneys in the division were furloughed last week, but one was recalled after Young denied the request to stay habeas cases.

Additionally, Julian said eight of 12 support staff employees have been furloughed as a result of the shutdown. The limited staff will continue docketing cases and reviewing new actions in the interim.

“It does disrupt what we’re used to,” she said. “Everybody here is committed to doing the best job they can on a day-to-day basis. We’re trying to make it so when other folks come back we’re able to go on and fulfill our responsibilities.”

Julian noted that even in cases where federal attorneys were available, in some instances their government agency contacts also have been furloughed, making information sharing difficult.

Separately, Southern District Clerk Laura Briggs issued a statement Wednesday that said except for cases stayed by Young’s order, the work of the court will continue as usual.

Briggs noted that the federal judiciary is expected to exhaust all funding sometime next week without a continuing resolution passed by Congress and signed by the president.

“However, even in this phase, the normal processing of all criminal and civil cases will continue,” according to the statement. “New cases can be filed. Criminal and civil hearings and conferences will take place. Jury and bench trials will proceed. CM/ECF will be operational, and Orders will be processed. The Courthouses of the Southern District will be open.”

Briggs said the commitment to keep the courts functioning even if funding is exhausted means some court staffers may have to work without pay.

She said the Southern District hasn’t had to make any personnel adjustments due to the shutdown, though that as a result of the sequester earlier this year that triggered automatic spending cuts, the courts eliminated seven positions.

Barnes & Thornburg LLP partner John Maley said federal court practitioners with cases being stayed should have received notice, and the order isn’t likely to result in much confusion.

“It has to happen,” Maley said of the stay, since many of the U.S. attorneys handling civil  cases have been furloughed. He said it could become a scheduling challenge if the shutdown stays cases for a period of a couple of weeks or more.

“I don’t believe this is Earth-shattering in any respect,” Maley said. “It’s unfortunate.”

Young echoed that sentiment. “It’s unfortunate that the court staff, judges and everyone involved has to spend so much time dealing with these issues that have been caused by the shutdown. We all have many other things that we should and could be working on, but this shutdown and the issues that arise from the shutdown are causing a lot of folks to spend a lot of time on them,” he said.

No similar orders had been issued for federal courts in the Northern District of Indiana as of Wednesday afternoon.

 

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