Judges Report 75% Drop In Court Activity During Pandemic

By Brandon Lowrey
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Law360 (April 21, 2020, 7:18 PM EDT) -- Hundreds of judges have reported that their courts are operating at less than a quarter of their pre-pandemic levels, prompting the National Judicial College this week to announce it would begin a formal study of COVID-19's effects on the judicial system.

Judges who left comments on the judicial training group's survey released Monday described prioritizing only absolutely necessary hearings and expressed concerns about their own health and safety.

"We are old and many of us have compromised immune systems," one anonymous judge wrote. "When I return to court, I will be wearing a hazmat suit if there is no vaccine or proven treatment/cure."

Fifty-seven percent of judges informally polled by the group said that their courts are performing at less than 25% of their normal operations and nearly 80% said they were operating at less than half of normal. Just 22% said their courts were operating at 50% or better.

The National Judicial College said it sent judges a more in-depth survey that it would use in a "full-blown academic study" on the virus' impact on courts, but did not announce a timeline.

The group's unscientific poll, however, drew responses from 876 jurists, including administrative law judges, state trial and appellate judges, local judges, tribal judges, immigration judges and military judges. Most comments were anonymous.

Several of the judges said that jury trials have been delayed for weeks or months, civil cases have ground to a near standstill, and that the crisis has forced them to rethink pretrial detention in criminal cases.

An unnamed juvenile court judge said that shutting down isn't an option due to federal mandates to review certain cases every six months.

"Packing up and going home is not an option when there are children placed in foster care," the judge told the National Judicial College.

Courts across the nation have been coping by shutting down, restricting or delaying all but the most necessary hearings and transitioning to remote hearings via video or telephone.

However, there remain questions over whether justice can be preserved in some necessary hearings, or whether criminal detention must be rethought.

Judges who responded to the National Judicial College survey were mostly pleased with how remote hearings were working out. Some wondered whether, with the kinks worked out, remote hearings would become a new normal after the pandemic is over.

Others said it felt inefficient, like it actually amounted to more work, or just plain wrong.

"I've held drug court via Facebook Live, have held hearings in criminal cases via Zoom, FaceTime and Skype - all to release jail inmates," wrote one judge, who scored their court as less than 25% operational. "But, it's hard to hold court and be 'normal' without being physically present and available. I look forward to getting back to work and back to normality as soon as possible."

--Editing by Alanna Weissman.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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