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Criminal charges and the shutdown: courts scramble to respond

Technically it's not a partial federal government shutdown. The more precise term is "lapse in appropriations." More and more, however, people around the country are coming to recognize a shutdown when they see one.

The shutdown of access to the signature Gateway Arch in St. Louis symbolizes the political stalemate that has led to the shutdown.

As the partial shutdown nears its third week, federal courts across the nation are naturally trying to minimize the impact. Court officials in St. Louis and several other cities have said they will remain open, with employees continuing to work.

In response to the funding lapse, court officials are trying to prioritize by focusing resources on criminal cases.

Around the nation, however, many federal employees who are needed to resolve civil cases have been furloughed. This includes many prosecutors. 

On one level, the distinction between civil and criminal is a very basic one. After all, the Constitution contains a right to a speedy trial in criminal cases. And of course liberty is at stake in many criminal cases.

But there are times when a case can involve both criminal and civil elements. For example, with some white-collar charges, such as those involving allegations of money-laundering, the government may seek to seize or freeze assets through civil proceedings. A case before the U.S. Supreme Court this week, Kaley v. United States, involves such distinctions.

Our point is that the focus of resources on criminal rather than civil cases will become increasingly difficult to sustain, the longer the shutdown goes on.

Source: CBS News, "Federal courts face agonizing delays during government shutdown," Associated Press, Oct. 14, 2013

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