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U.S. federal courts likely to stay open despite government shutdown

By Joseph Ax

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Federal courts across the country are likely to remain open and fully staffed if the government shutdown extends into a third week, even if the U.S. judiciary runs out of funding.

The administrative office of the U.S. courts in Washington, D.C., said on Thursday that the court system will continue to use fees and other revenue sources not tied to the annual budget to finance its operations through at least October 17.

Once the funding runs out, the chief judge of each district court will determine which employees and services are "essential" to the court's constitutional duty to hear and decide cases, just as other federal agencies have already been forced to do. Under federal law, "essential" employees continue to work during a lapse in government spending, while "non-essential" workers are furloughed.

Chief judges in New York, Indiana, Nevada, Michigan, Florida and elsewhere have announced that all employees are essential and will report to work despite the shutdown, ensuring that litigants, attorneys and members of the public will see little difference in day-to-day operations. The workers will not be paid until the shutdown ends but are guaranteed their salaries.

The U.S. Supreme Court will also remain open next week for oral arguments.

In part, the judges' determinations are a reflection of a judiciary that has already seen major staff and budget cuts in recent years, including the automatic cuts, known as the sequester, that went into effect this year, court officials said.

"We are so far below our authorized (staff level) already that what we have left is only what we need to process cases," said Claudia Wilken, the chief judge for the Northern District of California in San Francisco.

Court officials have already eliminated non-essential spending, including travel, training and equipment purchases.

In New York, some judges plan to warn prospective jurors that they will not receive stipends until the shutdown ends, according to Edward Friedland, the district executive for the Southern District in Manhattan.

Officials had previously estimated that the funding would run out around October 15. The U.S. government shutdown took effect on October 1 after Congress failed to authorize funding, shuttering federal departments, freezing government spending and furloughing thousands of workers.

The impact of the shutdown has been felt in cases across the country involving government lawyers, as the Justice Department and other agencies have sought to put virtually all civil litigation on hold.

Even criminal cases, which cannot be put on hold for constitutional reasons, have seen delays caused by the shutdown.

At a hearing on Wednesday in the insider trading prosecution of Rengan Rajaratnam, the brother of convicted hedge fund manager Raj Rajaratnam, federal prosecutors said they were having trouble accessing millions of electronic documents stored on government servers because of the shutdown.

They asked for another month to produce copies to Rajaratnam's lawyers.

"You're an optimist - it'll be over in a month?" U.S. District Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald said, before scheduling another court date in November.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Stacey Joyce)

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