Judge Denies Union Shutdown Petition

NTEU still seeking preliminary injunction for unpaid workers

U.S. Capitol building
Getty Images

A federal judge turned down a federal union's bid for a temporary restraining order against forcing federal employees to work without pay during the government shutdown.

On Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge Richard J. Leon rejected the National Treasury Employees Union motion for a temporary restraining order that would have curtailed the government's ability to force federal employees to report for work without paychecks. Although workers have received their backpay at the end of past shutdowns, NTEU argued that the practice of forcing essential employees to continue working is unconstitutional since the executive branch is operating without congressional appropriations. Judge Leon said the motion could throw the political process into "disarray" even as he acknowledged that workers "are not the ones at fault," according to Courthouse News.

"At best it would create chaos and confusion," U.S. District Judge Richard Leon said. "At worst, it could be catastrophic."

NTEU attorney Greg O'Duden said the shutdown, rather than ending it, was the only source of disruption in the federal government. He said the effort to end a partial shutdown would provide both the Trump administration and Democratic congressional leaders to compromise, rather than continue the stalemate over funding for the border wall.

"We think the [temporary restraining order] would not cause any disruption because the political branches of government would be forced to resolve matters," O'Duden told the Washington Free Beacon following oral arguments.

A large portion of the federal workforce has stayed home from work for the past three weeks as the White House and Congress battle over a funding bill. The NTEU lawsuit focuses on the 800,000 workers who have continued to operate during the impasse. NTEU has also filed a separate suit claiming that the shutdown violates federal labor law.

Federal workers unions have filed similar lawsuits during past shutdowns, but those efforts have been rendered moot when the government re-opened. The current shutdown entered its 25th day on Tuesday and is the longest in history. O'Duden said there is a possibility the suit could continue even if the federal government re-opens and makes its unpaid workers whole financially. The union is open to maintaining the suit in the hope it could set precedent and "put pressure" on lawmakers to avoid future shutdowns.

"There's an argument to be made that [the case] should go on because it fits into the category of an issue capable of repetition. [The shutdown] may well wash out, but we have a good idea it'll happen again," O'Duden said.

While the union recognized that courts are reluctant to grant temporary restraining orders, the District Court left open the possibility for a preliminary injunction in case. Judge Leon ordered the federal government to file briefs on the question by Jan. 22, while NTEU's are due on Jan. 28. Oral arguments are scheduled to begin on Jan. 31.