With federal lawyers furloughed, court delays suit over U.S. shutdown

(The January 16 story is refiled to fix typographical error in 3rd paragraph to make it “American Federation of Government Employees” instead of “American Federation of Government Employee”.)

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A lawsuit filed by a federal employees’ union over the current U.S. government shutdown cannot move forward because the Justice Department lawyers who defend the government have been ordered not to come to work, a judge said on Tuesday.

U.S. Court of Claims Judge Patricia Campbell-Smith said she appreciated the irony of the situation but “neither the court nor the attorneys at the Department of Justice has the authority to change the present circumstances,” she wrote.

The American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union, sued the government in December, arguing that requiring border patrol and transportation security agents, air traffic controllers, and other employees to work without pay violates federal wage law.

As it has in other cases since the shutdown began on Dec. 22, the Justice Department on Tuesday asked the court to stay the case because its lawyers are not allowed to work during the shutdown, even on a voluntary basis, with a few rare exceptions.

The union and the Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

About one-quarter of the federal government shut down over President Donald Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion to fund a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, which Democrats oppose.

Some 800,000 federal workers at agencies including the departments of Homeland Security and Transportation have been furloughed or are working without pay.

AFGE is one of several unions that have sued. On Tuesday, a judge in U.S. District Court in Washington D.C. denied motions by two unions for temporary orders forcing the government to resume paying employees, on grounds courts do not have the power to order other branches of government to pass legislation.

In past shutdowns, federal employees have been granted back pay once the government reopened. Judges have also in certain cases ordered the government to pay damages.

The case is Tarovisky v. USA, U.S. Court of Federal Claims, No. 1:19-cv-0004.

Reporting by Daniel Wiessner in Albany, New York; editing by Alexia Garamfalvi and Sonya Hepinstall