EL PASO, Texas, Jan. 24 (UPI) — The partial government shutdown will soon enter a second phase, widening the number of federal employees working without pay, including those in the court system.
Some civil cases have been put on hold in some districts during the shutdown. But criminal cases will continue to appear on judges’ dockets.
Some court workers, including U.S. attorneys and the U.S. marshals, have already missed a paycheck because they are employed by the Department of Justice.
The next phase of the shutdown affects district clerks, court reporters, interpreters, librarians courtroom deputies, secretaries, the federal public defender and probation and pretrial services. All of those functions are funded by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. The federal judiciary said this week it has enough reserves to pay those employees their January salaries but in February they will have to work without pay.
Processing criminal cases is considered essential work so most court employees will work rather than being furloughed. Jurors will still be impanelled but will have to wait for their daily pay of $50 until the government reopens.
The federal public defender in the Western District of Texas employees 146 people in offices covering a geographic area from its headquarters in El Paso to Austin in Central Texas and along the U.S.-Mexico border to Del Rio. Employees include 54 assistant federal public defenders, paralegals, investigators and secretaries, as well as 14 network specialists based in San Antonio who run the computer system for every public defender in the country.
“I don’t see how I can keep things up and running and take care of our clients and show up for court if we don’t have everybody working,” said Maureen Franco, chief federal public defender. “This means everybody is working for free.”
Franco said she is fielding questions from her staff about whether they can do part-time work after hours.
“It’s a slippery slope,” Franco said. “Assistant federal defenders are prohibited by statute from practicing law anywhere but this office, so that’s easy to figure out. But even so, some of the lawyers are asking if they can drive for Uber or Lyft.”
It’s not a decision Franco wants to make.
“I really want to keep everybody’s mind on fulfilling our mission,” she said. “It is not an 8-to-5 job. A lot of us work way past hours. What happens if something comes up with a client and a lawyer has taken up a job working at Starbucks? Who do you serve? The person who is paying you a paycheck or the person you have agreed to serve but who isn’t paying you a paycheck?”
U.S. Probation and Pretrial services depend heavily on independent contractors for location monitoring tools, drug testing and mental health evaluations.
The federal courts have told criminal defense attorneys for the indigent that they must work without pay, a situation that has been in effect since December 24.
Working without pay is not a dilemma for federal judges. Under the Constitution, the judiciary must be paid and because money is appropriated by Congress separately, judges’ salaries are unaffected by the partial government shutdown.