For the first time in decades, the Bay Area's federal courthouses in San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose will shut their doors for a day each month to save money -- the latest fallout from Washington's budget stalemate.
The San Francisco and San Jose federal courts will close the first Friday of each month until September, starting this week, while the Oakland branch will do the same on the first Monday of the month, starting next week. The Northern California federal court system also will lock its Eureka satellite branch on the same Fridays.
The drastic step was taken in response to an unexpected $350 million hit to the federal judiciary's overall budget as a result of the sequester, which clamped down on federal spending earlier this year. While not as high-profile as the recent impact on air travel, the budget cuts have sent federal judges scrambling from New York to Nebraska to pare their spending between now and the end of the fiscal year in the fall.
Bay Area judges say they had no other options but to furlough court workers and shut down business for five days, a move reminiscent of a few years ago, when California's state courts took the same approach in response to deep state budget cuts.
As a result, everything from legal sparring between feuding companies to sentencing criminal defendants must be rescheduled as courtrooms go dark for a day. Judges and their law clerks will still be working in chambers, just without a staffed courtroom.
"It seemed to be the only way," said Chief U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken, who called the move distressing. "There's really nothing left to cut except salaries."
Bay Area courts are not alone in their budget misery. Colorado's federal courts are taking the same step. The Los Angeles federal courts are closing clerks' offices for seven Fridays through August, while the Utah courts cut the number of criminal matters heard each day.
And federal public defenders across the country have taken even harder hits, cutting staff and furloughing lawyers, moves expected to delay some criminal cases. Steven Kalar, the Bay Area's chief federal defender, has imposed 12 furlough days on his staff between now and September, although he has avoided layoffs.
"Inevitably, it slows down resolution of cases," he said Wednesday.
In a move that attracted nationwide attention, even on Jon Stewart's "Daily Show," Steve Nolder, the chief federal defender in Southern Ohio, fired himself to save at least three other jobs in his office.
William Traxler, a federal appeals court judge who chairs a key national judges' committee, said in a recent statement that the cuts are not "sustainable," and judicial leaders, including Chief Justice John Roberts, are pushing Congress to restore the money in the next budget.
But Wilken is preparing for the worst, given the current political climate in Washington.
"We're not hopeful," she said.
Howard Mintz covers legal affairs. Contact him at 408-286-0236 or follow him at Twitter.com/hmintz.