The U.S. Department of Justice has sought to delay a number of high-profile civil cases in Oregon – including the lawsuit filed by the widow of refuge takeover spokesman Robert “LaVoy” Finicum – as the federal government shutdown continues.
Federal courts in the state remain open and operating, with court funding available through Jan. 11.
After that date, if funding isn’t restored, payments would be in jeopardy for jurors, court reporters, public defenders and probation officers — and likely would force changes in court operations.
“The longer that this lasts, the effect will start to be felt,’’ said Lisa Hay, Oregon’s federal public defender.
Oregon’s U.S. Attorney’s Office has furloughed a little over one-third of its approximately 130-member staff, with prosecutors and support staff in the civil division, asset recovery and administrative units mostly affected, according to First Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott Asphaug.
The federal prosecutors and support staff who are showing up to work in Oregon aren’t getting paid, except for U.S. Attorney Billy J. Williams. U.S. attorneys appointed by presidents – as opposed to the hired assistant U.S. attorneys — are exempt from the shutdown. Trump appointed Williams to the job in March. The prosecutors and staff are expected to get paid retroactively.
Since Dec. 21, federal lawyers have filed dozens of motions to place civil litigation on hold, particularly in cases that had immediate hearings or motion deadlines coming up. They also have sought holds in civil cases where federal agencies being sued face furloughs, such as the U.S. Forest Service or U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
In the Finicum case, Justice Department senior trial attorney Leah B. Taylor wrote that it’s not clear when Congress will restore funding for the department, which includes the FBI.
Jeanette Finicum has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the FBI, Oregon State Police, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and others in the fatal shooting of her 54-old husband, a rancher from Arizona who became the spokesman for the armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon. He was shot Jan. 26, 2016, by two state police officers after he fled a police stop and emerged from his truck at a roadblock. The FBI and state police initiated the stop to arrest organizers of the refuge occupation. Police said LaVoy Finicum had reached inside his jacket for a gun when he was shot. Police later said they recovered a loaded 9mm handgun , according to the investigation.
“Although we greatly regret any disruption caused to the court and the other litigants, the government hereby moves for a stay of proceedings,” Taylor wrote. That included a Jan. 3 filing deadline, she said, “until Department of Justice attorneys are permitted to resume their usual civil litigation functions.”
Federal lawyers also have asked to delay a lawsuit filed by the state and city of Portland against President Donald Trump and his immigration enforcement policies. In the suit, Oregon’s attorney general and the city of Portland claim Trump’s Justice Department has improperly and unlawfully “targeted” Oregon for denial of federal grants that assist state and local law enforcement agencies simply because Oregon is a sanctuary state. State law prohibits state and local law enforcement agencies from using public resources to arrest people whose only violation of the law is being in the country without documentation. A judge put the case on hold Wednesday. It will continue once government attorneys can resume “their usual civil litigation functions,’’ Justice Department lawyer W. Scott Simpson wrote in a court filing.
The Justice Department, however, hasn’t sought a delay in its settlement case with the city of Portland on police reforms required after an investigation found officers used excessive force against people with mental illness.
That’s largely because the next court hearing in the case isn’t until June, when a judge will evaluate how the city’s new community policing citizen panel has been working.
The Justice Department has directed federal prosecutors to ensure that “essential public safety and national security missions continue,’’ said Kevin Sonoff, a spokesman for the Oregon U.S. Attorney’s Office. About one-third of the Oregon U.S. Attorney’s office is working, he said.
“In Oregon, we have reduced staffing levels, but (assistant U.S. attorneys) and staff supporting criminal prosecutions will continue working,’’ he said. “Civil litigation is curtailed or postponed to the degree it can be without jeopardizing human life or property.’’
Federal courthouses are using court fee balances and other money not dependent on a new appropriation from Congress to stay open through the end of next week, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts.
The federal judiciary system also is working to conserve available money by delaying or deferring expenses, such as new hires and travel that’s not case-related when possible, according to Jackie Koszczuk, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Courts Administrative Office in Washington, D.C.
The government shutdown marked its 13th day Thursday, with no end in sight resulting from the dispute over Trump’s demand for billions of dollars for a U.S.-Mexico border wall.
After Jan. 11, each federal court district will make its own decisions regarding what’s considered critical work and the staff necessary to perform it, Koszczuk said.
Criminal prosecutions, as they relate to public safety, are likely to proceed but civil litigation could be further delayed in Oregon, according to the U.S. attorney’s Office.
And while federal public defenders will be paid through Jan. 11, other court-appointed defense lawyers assigned to cases as part of the Criminal Justice Act Panel had their pay suspended in late December because of the shutdown, Hay said. The panel defense lawyers, who are appointed by the court when people can’t afford to hire private attorneys, are paid $140 an hour.
That could impair their ability to hire investigators or forensic experts who work on contract, said Tiffany Harris, a criminal defense attorney on the federal panel.
“A protracted shutdown could fray our relationships with expert witnesses, psychologists and other people we recruit and hire, on a promise that they will be compensated by the federal government for their work on a case,’’ Harris said.
— Maxine Bernstein
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