Business as usual at Supreme Court and other federal courts

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U.S Supreme Court

WASHINGTON (CNN) — It was business as usual at the U.S. Supreme Court and other federal courts, which are immune — at least temporarily — from the government shutdown.

The justices have been back from summer break for several weeks, and issued a long summary on Tuesday of pending business.

The court accepted eight appeals for review, including a copyright dispute over an Academy Award-winning movie.

Federal courts nationwide opened the day with full staff and services. Officials prepared in advance and have enough reserve funds for two weeks of business before any cutbacks would take effect.

The Supreme Court indicated it would conduct normal operations at least through the week.

The new term begins Monday, the first of three days of oral arguments.

Officials privately indicated those public sessions would not be canceled, even if the shutdown extends indefinitely.

The historic marble building itself, opposite the Capitol, will remain open at least until October 4, one of the few federal areas accessible to tourists and the general public.

The 89 federal judicial districts — spread among 13 regional circuits — have some independent discretion when making budgetary and staffing decisions. Some might see more eventual layoffs or furloughs than others.

Judge John Bates, who also heads the U.S. courts central administrative office, said some “essential” business must continue, including “activities necessary to support” certain cases and “emergency activities necessary for the safety of human life and the protection of property.”

In a memo last week to colleagues, Bates also urged long-scheduled jury trials to continue.

“Payments to jurors will be made during the initial 10-day period,” he wrote. “If funds are not available beyond that point, courts may continue to call jurors and assure them they will be paid, although the payment may be delayed.”

There are 874 federal judges nationwide who enjoy life tenure. Like the nine justices, they would be considered essential personnel, and under the Constitution would be required to work– and get paid fully– regardless of the shutdown.

One complication is the court’s workload is dependent somewhat on the Justice Department, which faces immediate furloughs.

Federal prosecutors initiate all criminal and many civil cases. A shortage of executive branch lawyers and staff to try cases, depose witnesses, file motions and appeals, and argue cases could leave some judges with less to do.

A group of federal judges has already complained to Congress about the effects of forced federal budget cuts — known as sequestration — that have been in place since March.

Many courts have been forced to furlough clerk staffs, federal public defenders, probation officers, and pretrial services.

But at the highest court in the land, the justices would be expected to work normally in chambers, despite any effects from the shutdown or sequestration.

The copyright case accepted for review deals with a 1963 screenplay on the life of boxer Jake LaMotta, the former middleweight champion he wrote in part with his childhood friend and business partner Frank “Peter” Petrella.

LaMotta’s story was made into the 1980 Hollywood move “Raging Bull.” Petrella died a year later.

At issue is whether Petrella’s daughter waited too long to file a copyright infringement lawsuit over the original screenplay and the subsequent rights to the story.

Federal copyright law gave Paula Petrella the right to renew the copyrights before the term expired, which she did in 1991.

But her lawsuit was not filed until 2009. MGM Studios and 20th Century Fox– the movie’s distributor– both say that violates the established legal principle of “laches,” which bars claims that are unreasonably delayed, on the theory it would unfairly burden the adverse party.

The movie won two Oscars, including best actor for Robert DeNiro, who portrayed the boxer.

LaMotta is 92 and not a party in the appeal. The fighter also known as the “Bronx Bull” held the middleweight title from 1949-51.

The case is Petrella v. MGM, Inc. (12-1315). Oral arguments will likely be held in January, with a ruling by June.


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