At the end of a year full of unprecedented challenges caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Chief Justice John G. Roberts shared his appreciation for the unsung heroes in the judicial branch in his annual year-end report.
Released on Dec. 31, Roberts’ 2020 Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary acknowledged the hurdles and triumphs courts across the United States endured as a result of COVID-19. Setting the stage with a look at 230 years prior, Roberts noted that the country’s first chief justice, John Jay, led the courts at a time when Americans were suffering under the spread of influenza and yellow fever.
“Advancements in medicine have over time diminished the pandemic threat. The last nationwide crisis came with the virulent outbreak of the Spanish flu in 1918, which led to cancellation of Supreme Court sessions. But for more than a century, the courts have not had to respond to such a widespread public health emergency,” Roberts wrote. “Until now.”
The current chief justice pointed to the steps taken to ensure safety for those involved in the judicial branch under the circumstances, including the Supreme Court’s ask of its employees to work remotely, moving the weight of its attorney filings and opinion announcements online, and holding oral arguments by teleconference for the first time in history.
“Other appellate courts around the country have responded with similar considered flexibility. But once again the greatest challenge was faced by the ‘first to fight’ in the judicial family — the trial courts and their staffs,” he wrote in the report.
Roberts praised judges who sprang into action to make possible video and audioconferencing for various court proceedings, as well as judges around the country who were able to guide critical court functions from their homes. He noted the difficulties faced with proceedings involving detained defendants and creative innovations in refiguring how to hold jury trials while minimizing the risk of COVID-19 transmission.
“In focusing on the dedicated work in courts, I do not want to minimize the hardships and suffering caused by the pandemic. Like others throughout the country, judiciary employees have contended with illness and loss. My thoughts are with them,” Roberts wrote. “This year, more than ever, I am privileged and honored to thank all of the judges, court staff, and other judicial branch personnel throughout the Nation for their outstanding service.”
In addition to his review of the impact of COVID-19, the chief justice also noted changes in the workload of the courts.
At the Supreme Court, the total number of cases filed decreased from 6,442 filings in the 2018 term to 5,411 filings in the 2019 term. Seventy-three cases were argued and 69 were disposed of in 53 signed opinions, compared to 73 cases argued and 69 disposed of in 66 signed opinions in the 2018 term.
Filings fell less than one percent in the federal courts of appeals. Criminal appeals fell 3%, while bankruptcy appeals dropped 2%.
Civil case filings in the U.S. district courts increased 58% from 297,877 to 470,581, mostly attributable to an earplug products liability multidistrict litigation centralized in the Northern District of Florida, which consolidated 202,814 filings. Excluding that MDL, civil case filings fell 10%.
Cases with the United States named as a defendant increased 16%. Filings for criminal defendants dropped 20%. Lastly, bankruptcy court filings fell 21% to 612,561, as 89 of the 90 bankruptcy courts received fewer petitions.