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In federal courts around the nation, the wheels of justice may soon be grinding to a halt. The government shutdown has already caused court delays and disruptions. But as NPR's Tovia Smith reports, things may get a lot worse next week.
TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: It's carved in stone on the front of the federal court in Boston that the whole government depends on the, quote, "skillful administration of justice." But for many who do that job, it's getting harder.
JULIE OLSON: There is that huge uncertainty. And it will impact our clients' access to justice.
SMITH: Public defenders like Julie Olson say it's getting harder to mount a strong defense when the expert witnesses you want to hire, for example, don't know if they'll get paid.
OLSON: Hopefully they will trust that this will all shake out in the end. But yeah, we're sort of asking consultants and experts to work on faith.
SMITH: On the other side, prosecutors are also feeling the pinch.
LAWRENCE LEISER: It's difficult. It's a little demoralizing. And as time goes on, the worse it's going to get.
SMITH: Lawrence Leiser heads the National Association of Assistant U.S. Attorneys, all of whom are either furloughed or working without pay. That has stalled civil cases brought by the government. And while the official word is that criminal cases are carrying on uninterrupted, Leiser says not quite.
LEISER: As that spicket is being turned off, it's beginning to impact our ability to protect the innocent, prosecute the guilty.
SMITH: Leiser says prosecutors are running out of money for basics like DNA testing, paying informants or traveling to interview victims and witnesses. And that's hobbling, for example, even a major investigation of an alleged child predator.
LEISER: We don't have the funding to conduct the investigation and get the bad guys off the street in a timely fashion.
SMITH: Courts are also feeling the ripples from other federal agencies. For example, in the Southern District of New York, officials say prison staffing constraints are limiting attorney-client visits, so the court is being asked to postpone hearings. That court has also limited bail hearings because U.S. marshals, who transport prisoners, are reducing their hours. So some defendants who might have gotten bail are now spending an extra night in jail.
Such delays are not only costly, but Maine's chief federal District Court judge, Jon Levy, says they may also be unconstitutional.
JON LEVY: The old adage justice delayed is justice denied is true. So I think we have to be concerned about challenges regarding the right to a speedy trial that we typically don't face.
SMITH: Unlike the prosecutors going unpaid by the Justice Department, those paid by the courts - like public defenders, probation officers, interpreters and jurors - are still getting paychecks, thanks to court fees and some creative accounting. But that money runs out next week. And courts say they'll have to implement draconian triage measures if the shutdown continues.
EDWARD FRIEDLAND: It will be a disaster. The judicial process will almost come to a grinding halt.
SMITH: District Executive Edward Friedland from the Southern District of New York Federal Court says he's worried that even maintenance crews who keep the court open may not be for long. And he's planning for the worst.
FRIEDLAND: If in fact the buildings can't stay open, we literally will have judges sitting at their kitchen tables with a laptop computer with a camera on top looking at a defendant who's sitting in a U.S. marshal holding cell somewhere conducting these hearings.
SMITH: Outside Boston federal court, many prosecutors and public defenders like Julie Olson vow to keep working with or without pay.
OLSON: We're going to still have to do whatever it is we have to do. I still can't let my client sit in a prison. It just can't happen.
SMITH: But the prospect of going unpaid weighs on her.
OLSON: It's very nerve-wracking. We have student debt that I'm paying off and, you know, living expenses. And so the threat is frightening.
SMITH: Courts say they're already seeing some people retire or leave for jobs in the private sector. It's all the more frustrating since that'll make it even harder to dig out through the big backlog of cases courts will face when the shutdown finally ends. Tovia Smith, NPR News.
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