As the government shutdown kicked in this week, a federal judge joked to U.S. marshals at the entrance of the San Jose federal courthouse that they should not throw away the contents of a nearby recycling bin. It was a little gallows humor about the need to preserve every available federal dollar.

But in reality, the nation's federal court system has been unscathed thus far by the Washington gridlock. The shutdown has not been a shutdown at all for federal courts in the Bay Area and elsewhere, with the wheels of justice moving along as slowly but surely as ever.

Tourists may be getting kicked out of Yosemite, or turned away from visiting Alcatraz. But the federal courts will be working as usual until at least Oct. 15, and even after that point most judges and court officials expect an imperceptible effect on the federal legal system if the government shutdown drags on.

"Court sessions are going to continue, we'd continue to man the courts," said Cathy Catterson, the top administrator for the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers California and eight other Western states.

For example, the political drama will not interfere with this Friday's hearing in San Jose's antitrust lawsuit against Major League Baseball, set to unfold before U.S. District Judge Ronald Whyte.


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As an "essential" government service, the federal courts are expected to continue operating, just as they did the last time there was a similar government showdown during the Clinton administration.

There may be some scaling back, and court employees may have to work without paychecks until Congress and the White House patch their differences.

Of course, that has federal court and federal law enforcement employees somewhat concerned about paycheck delays if the Oct. 15 funding deadline comes and goes. "Essential doesn't mean paid," said one Bay Area court staffer.

The U.S. Supreme Court, meanwhile, begins its term this month and has continued to allow visitors to the court this week. The high court has not indicated how it will proceed through the shutdown, but it is not expected to cancel the first round of cases to be argued in mid-October.

Elsewhere in the Bay Area, other federal agencies involved in the court system are operating at or near full strength.

U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag has limited some services as a result of furloughs, such as lawyers handling civil cases and support staff to field calls from the public, but prosecutors handling criminal cases are on full-time duty, according to a memo she sent to the court.

Federal public defenders are funded through Oct. 15 and will work beyond that "with the hope of future payment when the budget is resolved," Public Defender Steve Kalar wrote in a memo distributed to the region's judges.

But the national shutdown is having consequences in other corners of government. A key example is that it threatens to delay California's plan to build two tunnels to move Delta water to the south.

Specifically, the shutdown could push back the release of key environmental documents examining the impact of Gov. Jerry Brown's $24.5 billion Delta conservation plan. The environmental review is supposed to be released for public comment on Nov. 15, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service cannot finish their work on time with government funding on hold.

It would could cost the Department of Water Resources and public water agencies paying for the review about $100,000 a day for the extended work on the plan.

"It pushes out the time on the far end where (plan contractors) have to be retained," said Richard Stapler, spokesman for the California Natural Resources Agency. "There are some real costs involved."

Staff writer Paul Burgarino contributed to this report. Howard Mintz covers legal affairs. Contact him at 408-286-0236. Follow him at Twitter.com/hmintz.