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

By Joseph Ax

NEW YORK, Oct 10 (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 Oct. 17.

Once the funding runs out, the chief judge of each federal district court will have to 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 must continue to work during a lapse in government spending, while "non-essential" workers are furloughed.

Many courts are poised to stay open - even if the money runs out - ensuring that litigants, attorneys and members of the public will likely see little difference in day-to-day operations.

Chief judges in New York, Indiana, Nevada, Michigan, Florida and elsewhere have announced that all court employees are essential and will report to work despite the shutdown. Those workers will not be paid until after 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, court officials said.

"We have no plans to shut down," said Sam Hamrick, the clerk of court for the Southern District of California in San Diego, who added that his staff has already been cut nearly one-fifth. "We have no plans to furlough employees."

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.

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

In a statement on Thursday, the administrative office of the courts in Washington said it would continue to restrict non-essential spending, such as training and travel, in an effort to stretch court operations through the end of next week.