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3rd Circ. COVID Slowdown Created Help For District Courts

Chief Judge Michael Chagares of the Third Circuit is well aware of the problems the COVID-19 pandemic wrought on the judicial system — but the recently installed leader said the appellate court's lighter docket has freed up the judges to help out in the region's overburdened district courts.

In an interview with Law360 on Monday, Judge Chagares said the Third Circuit's caseload has stayed "down rather markedly" throughout the pandemic. That allowed the appeals court's jurists to assist their colleagues in the federal courts of Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania by handling trials, ruling on motions and assisting in mediations. He said the circuit is careful to make sure that an appeals court judge handling a district court case doesn't see it again on an appellate panel.

"I view it as a historic opportunity for our court that we help our brothers and sisters of the district courts," said Judge Chagares, who assumed the mantle of chief judge in December, taking over for Judge D. Brooks Smith after he reached mandatory retirement age.

The pandemic hit just as the district courts grappled with several judicial vacancies, Judge Chagares said. Currently, there are six judicial vacancies in Pennsylvania, two in New Jersey and one in Delaware, according to court statistics.

The slowing case activity amid the height of the virus created an opportunity for the Third Circuit judges to address the empty spots on benches. Federal appeals court filings fell across the board by 8% in 2021 from the previous year, according to the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. The Third Circuit saw a dramatic decrease from 3,609 cases filed in 2019 to 2,728 in 2020, a 24% drop. The number continued to decline in 2021 to 2,550 cases.

The pandemic magnified the natural disparity in caseloads between circuit and district courts due to the difference in the courts' roles.

"The district courts have a different job. They have to bring in juries," Judge Chagares said. "During COVID, that wasn't happening as frequently. Hearings and having to put witnesses on, that couldn't happen. Sometimes folks weren't coming into the courthouse because things were closed."

The Third Circuit had more flexibility since its proceedings deal with lawyers only, and only for a set amount of time.

In another unexpected benefit, the remote proceedings courts were forced to embrace in the form of Zoom or other video software presented new opportunities for access to justice.

One of the access to justice benefits is "folks with disabilities have the same access as others to the court," Judge Chagares said. Additionally, hearings conducted remotely eliminate the need for traveling to the courthouse, which is a hardship for some parties.

The judge said he also finds video arguments superior to those conducted over the phone.

"Whereas they're not as good as live, they're a heck of a lot better than telephone arguments," Judge Chagares said.

While the judge said he expects virtual arguments to continue upon request, there isn't much demand for them.

Judge Chagares also said he tasked court staff with "memorializing" useful practices and adaptation measures undertaken by the court during the pandemic, should the need arise to implement them again.

Judge Chagares added that the pandemic initially robbed new Third Circuit judges of the opportunity to develop collegiality with their colleagues. In an attempt to correct that, Judge Chagares arranged a judicial retreat in Hershey, Pennsylvania, where the judges got to know each other through activities such as bowling.

Another measure to increase collegiality in the circuit is the implementation of "Chambers Chats," a program devised by Judge Chagares in which judges talk to each other's clerks to get to know them and about their goals in the legal profession.

Judge Chagares' overall optimism was tempered by some of the lingering difficulties of the pandemic, as well as perennial challenges like giving younger and less experienced lawyers opportunities to argue before the court.

Common feedback from senior attorneys, according to Judge Chagares, was that they thought the court would be "offended" by not having the most senior attorney argue the appeal. But the judge said that is not the case.

"I feel like some of the most impacted people were young attorneys. They weren't getting all that many opportunities to argue before us to start with," Judge Chagares said. "So I put a committee together to study this and see how we can get younger attorneys, particularly the ones who wrote the brief, to argue before us."

--Editing by Jill Coffey.



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