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US shutdown straining federal courts

Immigration cases, civil suits face long delays

Rafael Sanchez, a Colombian living in New Hampshire, is waiting for an immigration hearing. His daughter, Karina, fears she won’t get to college without a green card.

Photos by Holly Ramer/Associated Press

Rafael Sanchez, a Colombian living in New Hampshire, is waiting for an immigration hearing. His daughter, Karina, fears she won’t get to college without a green card.

HELENA, Mont. — The government shutdown is slowing the wheels of justice in federal courts by delaying civil cases, forcing prosecutors to operate with skeleton staffs, and raising uncertainty about the system’s immediate future if the stalemate continues past Thursday.

That’s when court officials expect the reserve funds they have been using since the Oct. 1 start of the shutdown to run out.

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Criminal cases, which are required by law to go to a speedy trial, are still moving ahead, as are most bankruptcy cases and appeals. Civil cases and those in immigration court, however, are feeling the greatest impact from the shutdown.

‘‘The Constitution tells us what we have to do and we can’t control our workload. It walks in the door, whether we’re funded or not funded,’’ said US District Court Chief Judge Loretta Preska in New York, who has put all civil cases except those already in trial on hold at the request of the US attorney there.

She said the nearly 450 district court employees who serve the New York metropolitan area will report to work to keep criminal cases on track even if funds run out. Officials at courts in San Francisco, Philadelphia, and St. Louis also say their employees will work.

Prosecutors, staff, and experts from other federal agencies, such as the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Drug Enforcement Agency, who are needed to help try civil cases, have been furloughed. US attorneys requested that judges temporarily set aside some cases; a few districts have requested a blanket halt to all civil cases.

In Los Angeles, 51 federal prosecutors and nearly 50 staff working civil cases have been sent home, leaving the Justice Department to file requests for stays as deadlines approach. Some requests have been granted, others denied, US Attorney André Birotte Jr. said.

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In Montana, US Attorney Mike Cotter has requested stays in more than a dozen civil cases, with more to come.

Just over half of Cotter’s staff has been furloughed, and while those who have been sent home are eligible for unemployment benefits, some of those who are working without a paycheck are considering borrowing money or dipping into retirement savings to make ends meet, he said.

‘‘We all have bills, car payments, mortgages, and medical payments to make,’’ Cotter said.

Immigration court proceedings are largely shut down, too.

Rafael Sanchez has been waiting two years to make his case for a green card after he and his family, who are from Bogota, overstayed their US tourist visas in 1997. Their New Hampshire court hearing scheduled for last Wednesday was canceled because of the shutdown.

Sanchez’s daughter Karina, a high school senior, is not sure how she will be able to go to college. Without a green card, she won’t qualify for financial aid.

Her father said that after coming from a country with so much corruption and violence, he doesn’t understand why the leaders of this country of plenty can’t work together. ‘‘At what point do the politicians think about how many lives are dependent on them?’’ he said.

Decisions on whether to delay civil cases vary district by district, and often, case by case:

 In New York, Preska issued an order stopping all civil cases, except civil forfeiture cases.

An exception is the government’s suit against Bank of America Corp. over high-risk mortgages sold before the financial crisis by Countrywide Financial, which the bank acquired in 2008.

 In Washington, the Justice Department was recently denied a request prompted by the shutdown to push back a November trial in its antitrust lawsuit aimed at blocking the merger of American Airlines and US Airways.

 In Pennsylvania, Justice Department attorneys have asked a judge to delay Geneva College’s lawsuit challenging federal health care reform mandates that would require the Christian school to provide employee health insurance that covers forms of birth control it finds objectionable.

Attorneys for Geneva College say that a delay is unfair unless the government also delays the reforms from taking effect Jan. 1.

If the shutdown goes on into the second half of October, juror reimbursement funds could run out — which would force courts to issue IOUs to jurors for their service.

Courts may have to grapple with security issues, too: the US Marshals service has been working without pay, but it’s unclear how long that can continue, said Charlie Hall, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of the US Courts.

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