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Government Shutdown Begins to Affect Civil Justice System

October 23, 2013

On October 15, as a response to the now-resolved government shutdown, a group of public interest organizations co-signed a letter to congressional leaders urging them to “please ensure that this [civil justice] system is not further crippled in any respect as negotiations over the shutdown and debt ceiling proceed.” Signatories of the letter included the pro-plaintiff rights groups the Alliance for Justice and the Center for Justice and Democracy, the environmental activists Earth Justice, the Environmental Working Group, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and the consumer rights group Consumer Watchdog.

The authors of the document wrote to Representatives John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi and Senators Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell to ask that “the legal rights of injured Americans [be] protected” during the negotiations within both houses of Congress. They cite several examples of ways in which the safety of individuals was compromised during the shutdown and ways in which these events have already affected the post-shutdown functioning of several governmental agencies.

First, funding for the Department of Health and Human Services’ Prevention of Elder Abuse and Neglect and Exploitation stopped completely. This program, which was established in 1987, aims to train police, government officials, and health care providers about ways to recognize and deal with elder abuse in addition to providing funds for education and outreach to help protect some of the most vulnerable members of our community. All programs were suspended, putting a strain on existing programs and casting doubt on plans for the future.

A great number of inspections also ceased completely, including many workplace safety evaluations. This placed American workers at greater risk of on-the-job injury during the shutdown, but also forced a two-week backlog in inspection schedules moving forward. Additionally, all “routine” food inspections, previously conducted by the Food and Drug Administration, stopped. The FDA suspended 60 percent of its investigators during the shutdown, and NBC News reports that “food safety experts are now warning that the longer Congress goes without appropriating funds, the greater the effect may be on consumers across the country.” During the shutdown, one such expert claimed, “For every day the government is shut down, it’s going to take them many weeks to make up the work that’s not being done. When they come back to work there’ll be a backlog of plants that should have been visited during this period that aren’t being visited.”

Another issue this blog has reported on, budget shortages in civil courts, grew worse each day that the government was not functioning. The letter’s authors explain that “many tort cases have been halted or substantially delayed. This is dangerous because the tort system is the last line of defense against the proliferation of unsafe and hazardous misconduct, whether in the health care field, or involving potentially dangerous industries…” The government shutdown has created opportunities for individuals to be injured by large corporations and manufacturers and, due to lack of oversight and inspection, potentially allowed these organizations to escape accountability for their misconduct.

The letter closes with a warning: “Sometimes during negotiation over ‘must-pass’ legislation, powerful special interests attempt to circumvent the legislative process and add amendments that would shield them from liability from harms they have caused.” Access to the courts is a vital need for American citizens, and the government shutdown has caused damage not only for the present, but has created a backlog in civil courts and safety inspections across the country that may last for months.


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