Indiana federal courts work as funds dwindle amid shutdown

In the Southern and Northern Indiana district courts, no workers have been furloughed and no pay periods have been skipped, but with the federal judiciary estimating it has funding only to sustain current levels of operations through the end of January, Hoosier jurisdictions are preparing for potential changes.

The partial government shutdown, which is now the longest in U.S. history, has forced the federal courts to dip into court filing fees and other available balances to continue functioning as normal. That funding stream has enabled the judiciary to extend operations through January, but the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts announced Jan. 22 that no further extensions are possible beyond Feb. 1.

If the government does not reopen before the end of the month, the federal courts will begin working under the terms of the Anti-Deficiency Act, which permits mission-critical work, including the activities related to the resolution of cases. Each court would determine the staff necessary to support its mission-critical work.

Indiana federal courthouses and courts have been open as normal since the partial government shutdown began Dec. 22, 2018. Both jurisdictions are making plans to keep working if funding lapses.

The Northern Indiana District Court has a plan for continued operations that is assessed weekly, according to the clerk of court Robert Trgovich. Noting the situation is subject to change, Trgovich said he believes the Northern District should be able to continue at full strength if the shutdown stretches into February.

However, while no court employees have been furloughed, the clerk’s office has delayed hiring more workers. The office, Trgovich said, is authorized to have a staff of 53. It currently has 40 and had been preparing to hire five more, but the process has been halted. Only one person had been hired prior to the shutdown and that individual has since agreed to wait until the impasse in Washington has ended before joining the clerk staff. 

Likewise, the Southern Indiana District Court is preparing how it will move forward as the calendar turns to February, according to Doria Lynch, special projects administrator for the court.

Civil and criminal cases will continue to be opened and processed while hearings and trials will proceed as much as possible without interruption in the Southern District, Lynch said. Also, any employees performing such excepted activities will work without pay during the funding lapse and any furloughs that take place will be rotated among staff.

The potential impact on the federal courts is already disrupting plans for the one of the regional Indiana Mock Trial competitions. Although the contest in northwest Indiana has traditionally been held at the federal courthouse in Hammond, the Indiana Bar Foundation, which oversees the state’s mock trial program, is working on contingency plans so the Feb. 23 event can go on even if the courthouse is unavailable.

The bar foundation has been talking to another court and a school in the area about accommodating the mock trials, according to Collin Gruver, director of civic education programs at the IBF. The new space will have to have enough room for the estimated 60 students who will be coming from five schools in the area, including Hammond, Merrillville, and Valparaiso, along with their teachers, attorney coaches and volunteer judges.

Gruver said the bar foundation will have to choose the new location next week in order to ensure the contest can go on as scheduled.

“Obviously our desire if (the shutdown) ends soon, then we would gladly go back (to Hammond),” Gruver said, “because the kids, coaches, volunteers, everybody loves being in that courthouse.”

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