Shutdown starting to affect federal court operations

Although the federal court system managed to find sufficient “no year” funding to stay open one more week (until January 18), the ongoing federal government shutdown has begun to affect the system’s daily operations. Several district courts are reportedly staying some civil cases, especially those involving the U. S. government as a party. Courts are also cutting back on operational spending such as travel, supplies, and new equipment.

All court employees are continuing to receive full pay as of now, but if the shutdown continues beyond the 18th, non-essential employees would be furloughed and essential employees will continue to work without a paycheck. In small district courts like the Northern District of Iowa, staffing is already sufficiently thin that all employees would be considered essential even if funds were to run out.

As bad as this news is for the courts, it dramatically illustrates the importance and wisdom of the AO’s internal budgeting operations. As I have discussed elsewhere, it was not until the late 1930s that the federal court system obtained control over its own budget. Even though the courts cannot control how much money they receive from Congress, the ability to manage that money with forethought is exactly why they have been able to weather the shutdown (at least for now) while other federal government offices have closed or reduced operations.

Consider, for example, the dire situation at the Justice Department, where the Antitrust and Civil Divisions already have reportedly furloughed more than half of their staffs. As a Bloomberg story explains:

A continued shutdown could seriously hamper some of the civil division’s broad and crucial mandates that range from ensuring healthy market competition and weeding out Medicare fraud to defending the U.S. in lawsuits and recouping money for the Treasury. The effect could then spill over into the department’s criminal division and federal courts, a scenario that could jeopardize law enforcement nationwide.

Not good news. Not good at all.

 

The coming impact of the shutdown on the federal courts

The United States Courts will run out of funding this coming Friday, January 11. If the federal government is not funded and operating by that date, case processing will be immediately affected. While the likely impact will vary from district to district, it is certain that civil cases will suffer first, with trials and hearings being postponed as the courts dedicate their essential staff to criminal proceedings. Bloomberg Law has a good look at how the courts are handling the situation.

We are already starting to see some negative effects on civil cases in certain districts. Should the shutdown linger, one would expect to see existing civil cases settle at higher rates, and future cases filed either in state courts or in private arbitration settings. None of this, of course, is good business for the federal court system. Let’s hope there is a resolution soon.

 

Chief Justice releases Year-End Report

Per tradition, at 6 p.m. EST on December 31, Chief Justice John Roberts released his Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary. Each year, the report focuses on one specific topic. For 2018, the topic–appropriately–was the work of the federal Working Group on Workplace Conduct.

Many have already focused on the #MeToo aspect of this year’s report. I want to highlight something a bit different. Far beyond discussing the specific outcomes of the Working Group’s activities, Roberts spent quite a bit of time discussing the internal mechanisms by which the Working Group’s suggestions were implemented. He highlighted the roles of the Judicial Conference of the United States, the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, and the various Judicial Conference subcommittees that studied and implemented the Working Group’s recommendations. The enduring image is one of a slow, careful, and multi-layered process–exactly the image the Chief Justice was likely aiming for.

Although it never goes on for more than a few pages, the Year-End Report may be the most deliberately written document that the Chief Justice writes all year. One has the sense that every word had been carefully and repeatedly vetted. That the Chief would dedicate significant space to describing (even at a high level) the federal courts’ internal committee work is telling, and a welcome development for students of court organization.

Happy New Year to all.

Courts in India and Pakistan continue to struggle with congested dockets

Two recent end-of-year reports suggest that justice systems in India and Pakistan remain completely overwhelmed. In Pakistan, the docket of the apex court has more than doubled in five years, to more than 40,000 pending cases this year. This is unfortunately reminiscent of the terrible backlogs that India also continues to experience in its courts.

Part of the problem has to do with human resources: one report notes that India has fewer than 20 judges per million people, as compared to 51 judges per million people in the UK, and 107 judges per million people in the US. But it is also not appropriate to blame the docket crisis solely on not having enough judges. The court system needs to think more creatively–and frankly, work harder and smarter–about resolving cases efficiently.

Previous entries on India’s docket crisis can be found here, here, here, and here.

 

Federal courts will still operate during shutdown

The United States Courts will use court fees and reserve resources to operate during the current government shutdown. The Courts can continue to operate for about three weeks, until January 11, 2019.

Federal courts appoint first Judicial Integrity Officer

Back in January of this year, Chief Justice John Roberts appointed a Workplace Conduct Working Group in response to several public allegations of workplace harassment within the court system. The Working Group made its recommendations in June. Now, the court system had followed up on one of the most significant recommendations by appointing a Judicial Integrity Officer: Jill Langley, formerly the Director of Workplace Relations for the Tenth Circuit.

According to the press release:

One of Langley’s first responsibilities will be to set up a new office that will serve as an independent source of information and referral. This will include answering individuals’ questions, providing guidance on conflict resolution, mediation, and formal complaint options.

The new Judicial Integrity Office also will track and monitor data and any recurring workplace issues to identify trends and conduct systemic analyses and reviews. In addition, Langley will provide training throughout the Judiciary and serve as a resource for workplace conduct staff throughout the court system, including coordination with the Ninth Circuit’s director of workplace relations, the D.C. Circuit’s workplace relations coordinators, and other similar positions in the courts.

 

A renewed push for technological advances in state court systems

This week saw the formal announcement of two new efforts to modernize state court systems through technological improvements. The Pew Charitable Trusts announced an initiative, in partnership with the National Center for State Courts, American Bar Association, state court administrators, and private tech companies, to “modernize key aspects of the nation’s civil legal system and make it more accessible to the public.” Among the projects are developing more online tools for litigants and the public; using artificial intelligence to understand common language legal questions; and expanding online dispute resolution.

Separately, the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS) released a new report entitled Eighteen Ways Courts Should Use Technology to Better Serve Their Customers. Among the report’s recommendations are:

  • Ensure court information and services are accessible through smartphones and ensure up-to-date wayfinding.
  • Allow court users to present photos, videos, and other information from their smartphones in court.
  • Enable court users to appear by telephone or video conference.
  • Facilitate easier scheduling of hearings using common digital calendar platforms.
  • Allow online payment of fees and other costs.
  • Create opportunities for users to access forms and other case-related information remotely and simplify the completion and filing of those forms, including electronic filing, and eliminate notarization requirements.
  • Deliver automated court messaging about upcoming hearings or missed events and allow that messaging to help guide users through the process.

Substantively, both projects are directly responsive to an increasing number of self-represented litigants who desperately need help navigating the legal process. In the spirit of this blog, the projects also demonstrate how the courts can partner with organizations in their immediate environment to improve their outreach and service.