Government

Public won't notice impact of shutdown in Iowa federal court, but employees will

Many employees will soon be working without pay

(File photo) Department of Justice seal in the US Attorneys office at the federal courthouse in Cedar Rapids on Friday, Dec. 23, 2016. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
(File photo) Department of Justice seal in the US Attorneys office at the federal courthouse in Cedar Rapids on Friday, Dec. 23, 2016. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — There’s no sign of a government shutdown at the federal courthouse here in the Northern District of Iowa. Court operations are running as usual, and all employees are working. But starting next week, if the impasse isn’t resolved, they will be working without pay.

U.S. District Clerk of Court Robert Phelps said federal courts have been operating on money saved from previous years since Dec. 22, when the federal government partially shut down after lawmakers and the White House failed to reach a spending deal that hinged on President Donald Trump’s demand for $5 billion to build a border wall. Every year, each district court’s unspent budget money is returned to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, which distributes money appropriated by Congress to the federal judiciary.

Thanks to the remaining money, officials at the administrative office announced this week that the courts will be funded through Jan. 18 — one week longer than initially thought.

Phelps said the directive is to furlough all “non-essential” employees, but the courts in Cedar Rapids and Sioux City operate with a lean workforce — 27 employees — and all employees are essential, so there will be no furloughs at this time.

“In bigger courts, there might be a secretary working for (the clerk of court) but I don’t have one,” Phelps said. “Or there might be someone doing community outreach or social media for courts. We don’t have anything like that.”

Once the money runs out, the clerks and employees in information technology and financial operations will work without pay — knowing any budget deal made by Congress will include a provision to provide back pay to employees, Phelps said.

“None have said they wouldn’t work,” Phelps said. “They could be furloughed but they wouldn’t get paid for that time off. Most understand they will be paid back, and I think they understand public service and the need for the judiciary.”

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Phelps also said no employees will be furloughed in the U.S. Probation Offices in Cedar Rapids and Sioux City, which have 50 employees total. They are all considered essential staff, he said.

Criminal cases have to continue on schedule because of legal deadlines for hearings and trials, and many defendants remain in jail pending resolution of criminal charges, Phelps said. But some civil cases, which don’t have the same issues and deadlines, could be delayed depending on how long the shutdown lasts, he said.

Once funds run out for operations, U.S. District Chief Judge Leonard Strand will have the discretion to prioritize cases, Phelps said.

The office will cut unnecessary costs such as travel, training, new equipment and supply spending, and any repairs to the building or offices also will be delayed.

Other federal offices in Iowa related to courts are operating in a similar manner.

U.S. Marshal’s Service employees are considered “excepted” because of the nature of their jobs, said Ken Runde, U.S. Marshal for the Northern District of Iowa. The 27 marshals in Cedar Rapids and Sioux City provide protection to the federal judiciary, apprehend fugitives, manage and sell seized assets from illegal activities, and house and transport prisoners.

“It’s unfair to the employees who have to work without pay,” Runde said. “The other big issue is that we can’t pay our bills. Our budget is frozen for now.”

Bob Teig, retired assistant U.S. attorney, was working in the Northern District of Iowa during a partial shutdown in the 1990s as President Bill Clinton fought with a Republican Congress over education, the environment, Medicare and public health. The shutdown lasted from Nov. 14, 1995, through Jan. 6, 1996.

Typically during shutdowns, Tieg said, the U.S. Attorney’s Office goes down to a “skeleton crew” with only two or three assistants and the U.S. attorney remaining in the office while everyone else is furloughed.

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U.S. Attorney Peter Deegan declined to give details of how his office is handling staffing during the shutdown.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Tony Morfitt, spokesman for the office, said in general terms the U.S. Department of Justice has contingency procedures in place for each district office across the country to ensure “public safety and national security missions continue.”

U.S. attorneys determine “excepted” functions, but employees with public safety and national security duties, such as prosecutors and some staff supporting criminal prosecutions, typically remain on the job. Others who are “non-excepted,” such as secretaries or other staff not involved in prosecutions, will be furloughed. Morfitt said it’s up to each office to determine who continues to work.

l Comments: (319) 398-8318; trish.mehaffey@thegazette.com

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