Law360 (July 30, 2020, 4:44 PM EDT) —
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed how judges work. Has it also changed how much they work, or, to put a finer point on it, how much work product they generate?
This article investigates that question using data from the Public Access to Court Electronic Records system, better known as PACER, pointing practitioners toward information they can use to better advise clients who are curious about the pandemic’s impact on litigation timelines.
Like lawyers, judges are encountering a new swath of potential distractions and efficiencies during the pandemic. The distractions are now familiar: technological snafus, separation from staff, lack of usual office resources such as printing and mailing, closed schools, summer camps, etc., and the general difficulty of focusing on work amid constantly changing circumstances. The efficiencies are also becoming familiar, and include curtailed commutes, fewer in-person events, and stronger focus on the essentials of life and legal practice.
One potential efficiency impacts the judiciary more than others — the trials and hearings in which judges used to spend so much of their time have, for the most part, been canceled, postponed or shifted to a less time-consuming remote format. If any type of lawyer is generating more work product during the COVID-19 pandemic, one might expect it to be judges.
So which impact — the distractions or the efficiencies — is greater? PACER’s reporting of written opinions is one source of data for answering that question. We’ll focus here on the federal districts listed below, with the first 10 representing districts with the largest caseloads, and the last two included to ensure cross-country coverage.
- The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York;
- The U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey;
- The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana;
- The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio;
- The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois;
- The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California;
- The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California;
- The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida;
- The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida;
- The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida;
- The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas;
- The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas.
The aggregate data across these 12 districts reflects a decline in the amount of judicial work product. In March this year, the number of written opinions was down 11% compared to the average number filed in March of the four previous years. In April, the decline was more dramatic, down 15%, and then in May, down further to 24%.