Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, News

Federal courts will close Feb. 1 if government shutdown continues

Federal courts will shut down next week if the partial government shutdown continues.

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AOC) estimated yesterday that the judiciary can sustain funded operations through Jan. 31. It also will continue to explore ways to conserve funds so it can continue paid operations through Feb. 1, according to a news release, but no further extensions will be possible.

The AOC had previously estimated exhausting available funds sometime between Jan. 18 and Jan. 25. The partial government shutdown is now in its 33rd day, the longest in U.S. history.

The full AOC release sheds some light on what happens next if the shutdown continues:

The extensions have been achieved through a multi-pronged strategy of deferring non-critical operating costs and utilizing court filing fees and other available balances. Most of the measures are temporary stopgaps, and the Judiciary will face many deferred payment obligations after the partial government shutdown ends.

In recent weeks, courts and federal public defender offices have delayed or deferred non-mission critical expenses, such as new hires, non-case related travel, and certain contracts. Judiciary employees are reporting to work and currently are in full-pay status.

Should funding run out before Congress enacts a new continuing resolution or full-year funding, the Judiciary would operate under the terms of the Anti-Deficiency Act, which permits mission critical work. This includes activities to support the exercise of the courts’ constitutional powers under Article III, specifically the resolution of cases and related services. Each court would determine the staff necessary to support its mission critical work.

In response to requests by the Department of Justice, some federal courts have issued orders suspending or postponing civil cases in which the government is a party, and others have declined to do so. Such orders are published on court internet sites. Courts will continue to conduct criminal trials.

The Case Management/Electronic Case Files (CM/ECF) system remains in operation for electronic filing of documents, as does PACER, which enables the public to read court documents.

Courts have been encouraged to work with their district’s U.S. Attorney, U.S. Marshal, and Federal Protective Service staff to discuss service levels required to maintain court operations. The General Services Administration has begun to reduce operations and courts are working with their local building managers to mitigate the impact on services.

Environment, Trump Administration

Federal judges puts the kibosh on seismic testing permits during government shutdown

Last February, BOEM held a public comment session in Raleigh about its plan to allow seismic testing and offshore drilling off the NC coast. Hundreds of people protested against the proposal beforehand. (File photo: Lisa Sorg)

The Trump administration is prohibited from issuing permits for seismic testing in the ocean during the government shutdown, a federal court ruled Tuesday.

Energy exploration companies conduct seismic testing to try to discover potential spots that contain oil or natural gas below the ocean floor. Science has shown that seismic testing, which produces extremely loud, persistent blasts of sound beneath the sea, can harm and even kill marine life, from whales down the food chain to plankton. Five exploration companies have asked for permits to begin the testing.

The Hill reported the story yesterday afternoon.

In addition to environmental groups, Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration has opposed energy exploration and seismic testing off the North Carolina coast, citing potential environmental damage and economic threats to tourism because of accidents or spills. Likewise, nearly every coastal government in North Carolina has publicly stated its opposition.

From The Hill:

Justice Department attorneys representing the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) had asked [Judge] Gergel to pause the case during the shutdown because they could not write filings. Gergel granted that pause, but said that the same logic means BOEM should be prohibited from granting any permits until the government reopens.
He noted that last week Interior asked furloughed employees to return to work in order to process the seismic testing applications. …

The story goes on:

Federal attorneys had told the judge previously that the BOEM would not issue testing permits during the shutdown. But the agency later updated its shutdown plan to bring in employees to work on the permits, and attorneys told the court that the permits might be issued as early as March 1.

 

Defending Democracy, News

PW exclusive: The ethics storm surrounding Trump’s FEMA chief from North Carolina

FEMA Administrator Brock Long

Watchdog groups: Brock Long should be fired if found to have violated rules

Between wildfires in California and Hurricane Michael in Florida, Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long is focused on disaster relief efforts as he awaits the outcome of a reported criminal probe into his alleged misuse of government vehicles.

Last week, Long and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis visited Panama City, Mexico Beach, Port St. Joe and other coastal areas in Florida which are still cleaning up after the tropical storm ravaged parts of state.

Meanwhile, Long continues to deal with his own personal political storm after an investigation by the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General’s office found he improperly used government vehicles and staff for personal reasons during frequent six-hour road trips from FEMA headquarters in Washington to his home in Hickory, NC.

During the weekend road trips, FEMA staffers who drove Long stayed in hotels at the taxpayer’s expense.

Rules are clear that federal officials who make unauthorized use of government vehicles for home-to-work trips can be removed from office, said Scott Amey, general counsel at the Project on Government Oversight.

“Long himself, or others inside FEMA, should’ve known the rules and acted as good stewards of taxpayer dollars, especially considering that he was traveling hundreds of miles each way and had to put the driver in a hotel at tax payers expense,” Amey said in an e-mail statement. “Anyone who assumes that government service comes with such perks doesn’t really understand serving the public.”

The Wall Street Journal reported in September that Long’s unauthorized use of vehicles and staff cost the government $151,000, according to the OIG report. In addition to having staffers drive him on home-to-work treks, Long allegedly had government employees drive him and his family during a trip to Hawaii in which he vacationed and conducted government business.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen ordered Long to reimburse the government “as appropriate,” and referred to the case to the U.S. Attorney’s office for possible criminal prosecution, the Journal reported.

In a September press briefing, Long pleaded his case.

“I would never intentionally run a program incorrectly. Bottom line is if we made mistakes on the way a program was run then we’ll work with the OIG to get those corrected,” Long said. “Doing something unethical is not part of my DNA and it’s not part of my track record my whole entire career so we’ll work with the OIG.”

For weeks, speculation swirled that Long would be fired amid media reports of disagreements with Nielsen about the amount that he should repay the government.

For now, it’s unclear where the criminal probe stands. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia did not respond to a request for comment on the case.

But Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist at Public Citizen said in an email statement that “the fact the IG referred the matter for criminal prosecution bodes poorly for Long.” Read more

Commentary, News

GOP fiddles while Trump shutdown mess grows more dire by the day

In case you missed it, be sure to check out a story posted Wednesday at NC Health News by former Policy Watch investigative reporter Sarah Ovaska. In “Federal shutdown starting to leave mark in NC,” Ovaska details the growing crisis that Donald Trump’s border wall shutdown is is causing for average people in North Carolina like U.S. Department of Agriculture employee Rochelle Poe. Here’s an excerpt:

Four weeks into the federal government shutdown, Rochelle Poe is distraught, unable to pay the January rent for her Raleigh townhome and facing possible eviction.

Poe, a 20-year employee and mortgage underwriter for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, says the threat of eviction over her $1,092 overdue rent has made it difficult to sleep or eat. She’s tried selling belongings, taking purses to a consignment shop and listing a new TV on Facebook’s Marketplace. Friends have chipped in money for groceries and gas.

“We want to go back work,” Poe said, about herself and fellow federal workers. “We’re not looking for a handout or anything, we just want to go back to our jobs so we can pay our bills.”

Also frustrating, she said, is a lack of collective anger from the public over the shutdown, with a fraction of the nation’s workforce affected.

“There’s no real outrage about the fact that we are going without,” Poe said.

Word came Wednesday, the same day her landlord said eviction proceedings would start, that a friend could loan Poe the rent money. It brought obvious relief but still leaves Poe with little to live on while she waits to find out when she can start working again.

“I was able to sleep last night for the first time in weeks,” Poe said.

Ovaska’s story goes on to detail several other troubling shutdown-related developments, including in the vital areas of housing and hunger assistance for people in need. The story notes that Orange County officials have started to advise potential new applicants for SNAP food assistance benefits that they likely will not be able to sign up as a result of the shutdown.

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell continues to do nothing to address the growing crisis. Indeed, as Think Progress journalist Amanda Michelle Gomez reported yesterday, McConnell has instead decided to devote the Senate’s attention to things like the consideration of destructive and impossible-to-pass anti-abortion legislation.

In the midst of the longest-ever government shutdown in U.S. history, Senate Republicans have instead decided to consider a bill on Thursday to codify existing restrictions that make it harder for low-income people to get abortions…. Read more

Education, News

On school psychologists, North Carolina doesn’t measure up

The National Association of School Psychologist recommends school districts employ one psychologist for every 500 to 700 students.

Ellen Essick, a section chief for specialized instruction support at NC Healthy Schools, reports to the Governor’s Commission on Access to Sound Basic Education.

In North Carolina, the ratio is one psychologist for every 2,008 students.

Let that sink in, and consider the mine-field of socio-economic and mental health issues children must navigate these days.

A higher percentage of teens report thinking about suicide. Incidents of bullying is on the rise. More children are living in poverty and experiencing homelessness. And they’re also struggling with sex and gender issues in ways that seem very foreign to many parents.

Meanwhile, academic studies show that students who are healthy, both mentally and physically, perform better in school.

“If you’ve ever seen a student with a tooth ache in school, then you know that they don’t make it through the day,” Ellen Essick, a section chief for specialized instruction support at NC Healthy Schools. “They’re not at all thinking about the test they’re taking or the class they’re in. All they’re thinking about is how that tooth hurts.”

NC Healthy Schools is a division of the N.C.  Department of Public Instruction that’s focused on improving student and staff health by providing resources within the context of the Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child (WSCC) model.

Here’s a link to reports state staffers shared with the commission: https://tinyurl.com/y7tsy4ee**

Essick made her remarks this week during a meeting of the Governor’s Commission on Access to a Sound Basic Education. The commission was formed in late 2017 to make recommendations for an ongoing court review of the state’s compliance with the 21-year-old Leandro ruling.

In that seminal case, a judge found North Carolina had failed to provide a “sound, basic” education for all students, regardless of the relative wealth in their local school districts.

Brad Wilson, the former CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield, who chairs the commission, said the commission is about half way through its work of gathering information to include in its report to the governor.

“We’re now beginning a level of detail of examination and analysis that will ultimately lead to our final report this year,” Wilson said.

The Leandro case sprang from a 1994 lawsuit filed by parents, children and K-12 administrators in five low-income counties, who argued that their districts weren’t receiving their fair share of public dollars.

In addition to the report about North Carolina badly missing the mark on school psychologists, the commission also learned that the state comes in staffing school counselors, school nurses and social workers.

The recommended ratio for school counselors is one for every 250 students. North Carolina has 4,137 school counselors for a ratio of one counselor for every 367 students.

For nurses, the recommendation is one per school. North Carolina has one nurse for every 1.7 schools.

And the recommendation for school social workers is one for every 250 students. North Carolina’s ratio is 1 for every 2,000 students.

Rick Glazier, executive director of the NC Justice Center, wondered how the state could possibly be abiding by the Leandro ruling when it’s so badly missing the mark for recommended levels of school support services.

“One would suggest that we’re devoting insufficient resources to school training, to school personnel, to psychologists, to social workers, guidance counselors and to school communities to be working with their children,” Glazier said.

Last year, NCDPI staffers reported that it would take roughly $688 million more in state funding to hire enough social workers, nurses, counselors, psychologist and school resource officers for North Carolina’s public schools to reach nationally recommended ratios.

Mark Jewell, president of the N.C. Association of Educators and commissioner member, noted that recent tax cuts approved by the Republican-led General Assembly leaves $3 billion on the table each year that could be used to improve public schools, health care and infrastructure across the state.

“Caring for the whole child is what public education is about,” Jewell said. “Our priority should not be tax cuts for corporations. It’s not the North Carolina way.”