Federal courts feel pinch from ongoing government shutdown

Prosecutors and courts on the job — but some unpaid

The partial government shutdown is beginning to hit metro Atlanta’s federal courts, with some cases grinding to a halt as dollars from Washington dry up.

Federal prosecutors and legal staff in the criminal division of the Northern District of Georgia remain on the job — though unpaid — amid the ongoing stalemate.

Criminal matters remain the priority in the district, and U.S. Attorney Byung J. “BJay” Pak said the shutdown has not affected pending criminal cases. But the day after Christmas, the district’s top judge ordered a stay on all civil matters to which the federal government is a party.

Pak said his office is operating at about 60 percent capacity since the start of the shutdown, but the effects so far have been muted because of the natural slowdown that occurs over the holidays. But that is likely to change as many assistant U.S. attorneys and legal staffers who were on vacation and would normally return to work this week instead will be furloughed, Pak said.

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Lawyers and legal staff specializing in national security and criminal cases within Pak’s office, which has jurisdiction over 46 Georgia counties, are considered exempt from furloughs and remain on the job. They and their furloughed colleagues, however, will miss their first paychecks of 2019 on Friday if funding isn’t restored.

“When it comes to public safety nothing is going to stop,” Pak said. “That’s our priority No. 1. Despite the lapse in funding public safety will never be jeopardized.”

Pak said he didn’t anticipate any delays in trials, at least not yet.

“We don’t have any immediate trials scheduled but we do have some coming up soon,” Pak said.

Still, the impact is being felt in the court system.

On Dec. 26, Chief Judge Thomas Thrash of the Northern District of Georgia issued a stay on all civil proceedings to which the federal government is a party.

Credit: Walter Cumming

Credit: Walter Cumming

That means plaintiffs who file suit against the government or who make civil rights claims could see justice delayed. Defendants in federal civil actions also are on hold.

The civil case stays have an indirect effect on criminal proceedings.

For instance, the federal government often files civil asset forfeiture cases against criminal defendants, particularly in cases involving tax matters.

Mitzi Bickers, a pastor, political consultant and former city of Atlanta employee, is a defendant in the federal corruption investigation at Atlanta City Hall. She’s also fighting the government’s claims against her lakeside home, vehicles and other assets that followed her indictment last year.

Bickers has pleaded not guilty to a dozen counts including bribery, money laundering and tax charges.

Thrash’s order, however, means cases like Bickers’ are in indefinite limbo. Or, as the judge’s order states: “until appropriations are restored.”

The federal courts in Atlanta, meanwhile, which also includes the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, have cobbled together enough money to maintain normal operations through Jan. 18, said Jim Hatten, circuit executive of the U.S. District Court in Atlanta. The courts will continue to operate once funding dries up, Hatten said.

“We will remain open, we’ll continue to accept cases and continue to have court proceedings and trials,” Hatten said. “We’ll still have our clerks, security personnel, court reporters and support staff. The major difference, of course, is we won’t have money to pay those people.”

Jurors called into service also won’t be paid, he said.

The Federal Defender’s Office in Atlanta is one of 17 nationwide that are designated nonprofits and receive operating funds from the federal courts.

The Atlanta office already received its monthly payment for January. After February 1, though, it’ll be without funds.

“All the lawyers will have to continue to work, but we just won’t get paid,” said Stephanie Kearns, who heads the Atlanta office. “As for our support staff, a lot of them are single parents. How are they going to make their mortgage payments? How will they pay their rent?”

Pak’s office has more than 200 attorneys and staffers, about 60 percent of whom are on the criminal side and the remainder in the civil division.

Staffers within the civil division, which handles forfeiture of assets in criminal cases, civil litigation involving government agencies and civil rights matters, were deemed non-essential as part of the shutdown and will be furloughed.

Staffers who work during the shutdown will be paid for those hours when funding is restored. But there’s no guarantee staffers who are furloughed will receive back pay, though Congress has passed legislation to pay furloughed workers in past shutdowns.

To help ensure furloughed staffers will at least receive some pay when the government reopens, Pak said, the criminal and civil staff will rotate between being on-duty and furloughed.

“Our staff and lawyers have been tremendous,” Pak said. “[We] asked for volunteers and we are rotating the civil and criminal [staff] so that all get a chance to work so the full brunt isn’t faced by one group.”

Pak said he worries about morale.

“We are hopeful the funding will be restored soon,” Pak said. “The toughest part in my perspective is there are folks who may be made whole, but cash-flow is a challenge. Some can absorb that better than others.”