Federal courts release Annual Report and latest statistics

The Administrative Office of the United States Courts has released its 2017 annual report, which includes a wealth of caseload statistics for the district courts and circuit courts of appeal. It’s a fascinating read for those who like reams of data.

For those who just want the punchline, Law360 gives a good summary:

In the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2017, case filings fell in federal courts of appeal by 16 percent and in district courts by 7 percent, while petitions to U.S. bankruptcy courts fell by 2 percent, bringing the overall number of cases filed in each of those courts to their lowest levels since at least fiscal year 2013, the report shows.

Since 2013, the number of cases filed in federal appellate courts have dropped by 10.5 percent, while the number filed in district courts have fallen 6 percent and federal bankruptcy petitions have declined by 28.5 percent, according to the data, which pointed to a few factors that impacted the year-on-year decline in each of those courts.

In U.S. district courts, the decline from 2016 was driven by a reduction in civil filings. They fell 8 percent from approximately 291,000 to just under 268,000 from one year to the next, while civil filings per authorized judgeship dropped from 431 in 2016 to 396 in 2017, the report said.


Federal courts ban employees from engaging in partisan campaign activity

The United States Courts have quietly imposed a new ban on campaign donations and partisan political activity by court employees and administrative staff. The new rule went into effect March 1.

An Administrative Office spokesman told the ABA Journal that only “bright-line” partisan activity–not issue advocacy–is prohibited. Moreover, court employees may still donate time and energy to charities, religious organizations, and professional organizations.

This is a sensitive area, which requires a carefully balanced policy. The courts are surely motivated by the need to appear politically neutral and unbiased, a concern that applies to court employees as much as judges. But the “bright line” that the Administrative Office suggests is quickly likely to become blurry in practice. Is a donation to an advocacy group like the National Rifle Association or Planned Parenthood a partisan activity within the meaning of the new rule? Such organizations are so closely tied in the public mind to a particular political party that they can raise the same specter of partisanship even if the organizations themselves are technically nonpartisan.

There are also First Amendment issues at stake. Federal judges are bound by a Code of Judicial Conduct, which limits their ability to engage in partisan political activity as a matter of professional ethics. But the Supreme Court has concluded that notwithstanding prevailing codes of conduct, state judges retain First Amendment rights to speak on political matters. Court employees (who are not bound by a judicial code) would seem to have an even stronger argument for First Amendment freedoms.

The Administrative Office is keeping the new policy largely internal for now, and has said that it will address individual questions as they come up. I predict that this is likely to turn into a headache for the AO going forward.




South Carolina courts face stenographer shortage

For the second time in two days, a story on the severe shortage of court reporters in a state court system — this time in South Carolina. In influx of retirements, brought on by changes to the state retirement program, has led to a significant shortage of stenographers in courts across the state. The court system has launched an audio reporting program to compensate for the shortage, but as I discussed yesterday, audio recording is inferior in many ways to a live stenographer.

Texas courts face shortage of stenographers

The Texas state courts face delayed hearings and trials resulting from a dwindling supply of court reporters.  The Texas Office of Court Administration reports a decline of 20 percent in the number of available stenographers since 2005.

While some courts across the country have moved to audiotape as a less expensive option, live court reporters typically produce transcripts that are far more accurate. The story quotes stenographer Chavela Crain, who noted

“We deal with dialects, accents, coughing, sneezing, sirens going by, somebody says they were offered 15,000 for something, and I can say ‘Wait, was that 15,000 or 50,000?'” Crain explained. “On an audio (recording) you’re not going to be able to tell that, and if somebody’s not in the room there is nobody to clarify that.”

West Virginia’s appellate court crisis

Odd things are happening on the West Virginia Supreme Court.

On February 16, Chief Justice Allen Loughry was demoted and replaced as chief by Justice Margaret Workman. The unusual move, which followed a vote by the court’s other members, was apparently precipitated by a spending scandal. The court system spent more than $360,000 on Loughry’s office space since he joined the court in 2013, including a $32,000 couch. Loughry and the state court administrator pointed fingers at each other. The administrator has since been fired. In light of the crisis, the state senate voted to assume immediate legislative oversight of the judicial branch’s budget.

Shortly before these events transpired, Loughry also undertook a massive administrative reorganization of the West Virginia court system, consolidating 27 court divisions into only six. Several court administrators lost senior positions, and at least two supreme court justices strongly opposed the move. Justice Robin Davis told a reporter:

“I voted against the Court’s most recent Administrative Office reorganization for two critical and distinct reasons…. First, there is an appalling lack of clarity in the newly structured Court Services Division because there is no longer a distinct chain of command for each of the different types of courts comprising the judiciary.

“Collapsing magistrate courts, drug courts, family courts, and circuit courts under the same umbrella of supervision will severely hamper and drastically delay response time in answering critical questions and responding to the needs of these courts.

The “purported efficiency” of streamlining the division will in fact, actually restrict citizens’ access to justice and judicial resources, she stated.

As this crisis unfolds, legislators are separately debating whether to add an intermediate court of appeals to the state judiciary. West Virginia is one of only nine states without an intermediate appellate court, meaning that all appeals must be heard by the state supreme court, or not at all. Republicans in the legislature are pushing the change, with support from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

There are many advantages to adding an intermediate appellate court. For one, it would streamline the supreme court’s workload. It also carries the potential to lower the stakes of electing supreme court justices: if the supreme court were not the only appellate body in West Virginia, major donors would have less incentive to finance supreme court candidates. (And the historical corruption on the West Virginia Supreme Court as a direct result of election financing is well documented.) Of course, the same problem might just be manifested in the intermediate appellate court as well, but there is at least a chance for reform. Against these advantages is the cost: the tag for a new appellate court would be many millions of dollars.

It will be fascinating to see how these developments play out.  Can/will structural reform to the West Virginia courts bring an air of ethical reform as well?

Federal Judiciary Working Group on Workplace Conduct solicits employee input

The Federal Judiciary Workplace Conduct Working Group, formed earlier this year in response to the #MeToo movement and specific allegations against Judge Alex Kozinski, has begun collecting data and reviewing existing policies. The Working Group is also soliciting input from federal court clerks and employees. Comments will be received until March 21, 2018.

More information here.

Judge denies stay of injunction in Cook County records case; defendants appeal to the Seventh Circuit

This blog has been following a First Amendment challenge to the filing practices in the Cook County (Illinois) courts. In November, the Courthouse News Service filed a federal lawsuit, alleging that Cook County was violating the First Amendment by denying the press and the public immediate access to electronically filed civil cases. In January, the federal district court agreed, and issued an injunction giving the Cook County Clerk’s Office 30 days to implement a new procedure.

That procedure has yet to be implemented, and the federal district court has twice rejected motions to stay the injunction. Now the clerk’s office has appealed to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that the federal courts never should have heard the case under the abstention doctrine announced in Younger v. Harris. No word yet from the Seventh Circuit.

I have more extensive thoughts on this entire lawsuit here.