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Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse

If the partial government shutdown continues through Friday, the federal court system will run out of money. Some court workers might face furloughs, but a court official said the public likely would not notice any effects in court operations at the Sioux City federal building, shown above, unless they're involved in a civil case.

SIOUX CITY -- Like many attorneys with an approaching trial date, Jeffrey Janssen prepares as if the trial will start on that day, regardless of any circumstances that may cause a delay.

If it does get delayed for any reason, he'll deal with it when it happens.

"My default is to plan as if it's going to trial," said the Des Moines attorney, who is scheduled to represent his client in a religious discrimination trial scheduled to begin Monday in U.S. District Court in Sioux City.

Should that trial be delayed, it won't be because of the federal government's partial shutdown.

With the U.S. judicial system expected to run out of money on Friday because of the partial shutdown, federal judges and court administrators across the nation are deciding how to keep courthouses operating.

"As far as the public sees, it will largely be business as usual," said Robert Phelps, U.S. District Court Clerk for the Northern District of Iowa, which includes Sioux City.

Chief U.S. District Judge Leonard Strand told attorneys arguing the upcoming case that the trial would take place regardless of the government shutdown.

"The judge told us to plan for the trial despite the uncertainty. We're very grateful that our case will proceed," said Assistant Iowa Attorney General Gretchen Kraemer, who is representing the Iowa Department of Human Services, which is being sued by a former security officer who says his firing from the Civil Commitment Unit for Sexual Offenders in Cherokee, Iowa, was linked to his religious beliefs.

Lawyers for other pending civil cases may not have as many reasons to be grateful.

Phelps said that if the shutdown lasts past Friday, Strand, whose office is in Sioux City, must determine which court functions and personnel are essential to the court's continued operation.

Criminal cases will proceed as normal because of defendants' constitutional rights to speedy resolution of their cases, Phelps said. Civil cases do not have those guarantees, and they could be delayed if fewer court personnel are available.

Essential workers will continue to work without pay. Workers termed nonessential could be furloughed until the end of the shutdown, which began Dec. 22 after President Donald Trump and lawmakers failed to reach a compromise on spending legislation that would include some or all of the $5 billion Trump had requested for border security.

Since then, Phelps said, the judicial system has been operating on funds that were not spent in the previous fiscal year's budget and are held by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, which oversees the federal judiciary's budget.

Those funds run out Friday.

About 50 people work in the Sioux City district court, bankruptcy court and probation and pretrial services offices, Phelps said. Typically, the Northern District has hired fewer workers than are included in budget allotments if the work can be done by fewer people.

"As a philosophy, we run lean. Everybody we have is essential," Phelps said.

Phelps said probation and pretrial service officers will continue to work and meet with their clients.

The judiciary has coped with government shutdowns before, but none ever reached the point in which funding ran out, Phelps said. Court officials and judges began developing contingency plans in December as the possibility of a shutdown increased.

"Here in January, it's been almost a daily topic," he said.

If the shutdown lasts past Friday, Phelps said, the court system would continue to work with the U.S. Attorney's Office, U.S. Marshals Service and the General Service Administration, which operates the federal building, to keep the court operations functioning as normally as possible.

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