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With shutdown deal, Buffalo's federal courts avoids impending impact ... for now

When jurors in a police brutality trial hear testimony next month, they may have to go without the normal $50 a day in juror pay.

In the same courtroom, the U.S. Marshals who protect them might also be working without pay.

And so might lawyers prosecuting the case.

America's government shutdown was coming to the federal courts in Buffalo next week but, on Friday, President Trump and lawmakers reached an agreement to reopen the government for three weeks.

The agreement puts the federal court crisis on hold for now but, three weeks from now, it could again be front and center. And the man in charge of the courts is worried about the people who work for him.

"They're anxious," Chief U.S. District Judge Judge Frank P. Geraci Jr. said this week. "People are worrying about paying their mortgage, making their car payment."

Geraci aired his concerns before Friday's agreement and as the courts prepared for a shutdown within a shutdown. Unlike most of government, the courts operated – and paid employees – the past several weeks with funds generated by court fees and savings.

In contrast, employees in the U.S. Attorney's Office and at the FBI have been furloughed or working without pay since the shutdown began. A handful of prosecutors borrowed from the NHL's tradition of playoff beards and grew mustaches and beards to protest their lack of pay.

"You don't shave until you get paid," one of them said last week.

At other agencies, like the Drug Enforcement Administration, Homeland Security and IRS, employees said there's a lot of anger in the ranks of workers who have now gone weeks without a paycheck.

The local court system had expected to run out of money after Friday, but got a last-minute reprieve until Jan. 31. And then came Friday's temporary end to the stalemate.

If there is another shutdown, the first impact will be on the hundreds of employees, from public defenders and probation officers to people who work in the Court Clerk's Office, who keep the day to day operation running.

"The public needs to be aware that federal workers are working," said Federal Public Defender Marianne Mariano. "They're just not getting paid. They're getting zero paychecks."

 

For Buffalo's federal employees, government shutdown causing pain

Privately, people who work at the courthouse will tell you they worry about their lower-paid colleagues, people who live week to week, paycheck to paycheck.

"It has been anxiety-producing," Mariano said of the shutdown.

Here in Buffalo, because of the backlog of federal court cases, Geraci said each employee is considered essential under the law and will be asked to work without pay if the shutdown returns.

The impact is also being felt by plaintiffs and defendants in civil cases, especially those involving the federal government.

Unlike criminal cases, which are subject to speedy trial laws, civil suits can be put on the back burner. Those cases range from environmental and securities prosecutions to whistleblower and civil rights lawsuits.

For many, the delays bring to mind the old adage, "Justice delayed is justice denied."

Early on, Geraci ordered civil cases against the government put on hold until the shutdown was over. He also ordered a halt to new travel, training, contracts and hiring.

The shutdown also means jurors in federal court trials would go without pay until the stalemate ends, and that local jails that house people in federal custody would have to wait for reimbursement.

Court-appointed defense lawyers would also have to wait for pay.

"It's kind of a demoralizing situation," Geraci said earlier this week. "The strain is really starting to be felt."

NFTA says airport running smoothly despite shutdown

Buffalo and Rochester, home to the region's other federal courts, are not alone in dealing with the shutdown. Federal workers across the country are dealing with the uncertainty of not knowing when their next paycheck may come, and their unions and associations are starting to speak out.

One of them, the FBI Agents Association, called for an end to the stalemate and warned of the consequences of doing nothing.

"Fund the FBI now," Thomas O'Connor, president of the association, said at a news conference in Washington, D.C. "The failure to fund the FBI is making it more difficult to do our jobs, to protect the people of our country from criminals and terrorists."

For Geraci, the impact of the monthlong shutdown was becoming evident before Friday's agreement between Trump and Congress.

When asked during an interview what message he would send to Trump and lawmakers, he pointed again to the workers who keep the courts running.

"The justice system really needs these people to fulfill its constitutional responsibilities," Geraci said. "That's being compromised at this point because of the shutdown."

For Mariano, who oversees an office of people who might soon go without pay, it's important that the public realize that yes, the courts are open, but only because of the sacrifices of federal employees.

"We're working," she said. "We're just not getting paid."

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