Federal courts still afloat

MARQUETTE — While U.S. federal court officials originally anticipated funding would run out if the now record-breaking shutdown continued past Friday, those in Michigan say another week of funding has been secured.

“The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts in Washington D.C. notified us earlier this week that they had found additional funding,” said Thomas L. Dorwin, clerk of court for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan. “They’ve been asking all courts to economize, so they’ve been pushing the books pretty hard to try to extend out when the funding lapse would take effect.”

The courts have remained open while other agencies without budget appropriations have been largely shut down, Dorwin said, because the federal courts collect fees and have been able to use them to stay afloat.

“We’ve been operating on fees — the court collects fees and they have other funds that are outside of the appropriation process that they’re able to draw on — but it’s not unlimited,” he added.

Employees of Marquette’s federal court and all other courts in the Western District remain at work with pay, Dorwin said, noting that all court offices and functions remain “fully operational” at this time.

While the Western District has not yet made final determinations of employees who will be deemed essential personnel should the shutdown continue, the process has begun, he said.

“Chief Judge Robert Jonker, he is cast with working with me and other court unit executives to come up with a plan,” Dorwin said. “And then the judges consider it jointly — that’s where it’s at right now.”

If funding does lapse, judges will continue to hear cases, with criminal matters as the priority, Dorwin said.

“The judges in the federal court, they operate under Article III authority, so they’ll continue to be available and hear cases even after the lapse goes into effect,” Dorwin said. “We just have to be much more focused on making sure that the only work that happens is the work that furthers the constitutional duties of the court.”

While some federal courts have begun to stay civil cases in light of the shutdown, this hasn’t happened in the Western District of Michigan, he said.

“Right now we’re not seeing any effect. They’re seeing their cases as they normally do on an individual basis,” Dorwin said, noting that judges do have the discretion to manage their dockets if need be.

However, he said the court is “trying to be very cautious” about expenditures.

This means travel has been limited to case-essential travel, employees will not be attending training or conferences and no new contracts will be entered during the shutdown, he said.

While the impending funding lapse looms large, Dorwin said he realizes the federal courts have fared better than many other agencies during the shutdown, noting that he feels fortunate the courts remain funded for another week.

Cecilia Brown can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248. Her email address is cbrown@miningjournal.net.