Appellate Trends During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Chief Justice Roberts recently issued his year-end report on the federal judiciary, appropriately focusing on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Chief Justice noted that 2020 ended with the judiciary in much the same situation as when the American court system began – in the midst of a public health crisis. In 1790, it was the influenza. In 2020, of course, it was the coronavirus. Throughout the history of our judicial system, whether by horseback or by Zoom, the work of appellate courts has proceeded despite health challenges.
What caught my attention in the report was a statistic showing that new filings in regional courts of appeal fell by less than one percent in 2020, from 48,486 to 48,190. New civil appeals decreased five percent, reflecting a decrease in new civil filings in district courts. That made me delve deeper into judicial statistics, to look at what is going on in the First Circuit and in Maine.
The same downward trend is occurring in both places. New appeals in the First Circuit declined from 1,342 in 2019 to 1,284 in 2020. “Other” new appeals in the First Circuit, including civil appeals (in contrast to prisoner, criminal, or administrative appeals), fell from 640 to 618 over the same timeframe. (By point of comparison, there were 1,504 new appeals in 2015, of which 643 were “other” appeals). Total new appeals thus dropped by 4.3% year over year (and 14.6% since 2015). This data, it should be noted, reflect a 12-month period ending September 30. Civil appeals are also on a downward trend in the Maine Law Court. There were 396 civil filings in fiscal year 2019, but only 360 civil filings in fiscal year 2020. This decline in civil appeals is long-term; in 2016, for instance, there were 478 civil appeals filed in the Law Court.
2020 thus continued the steady decrease in appellate filings in the First Circuit and in Maine. It will be very interesting to continue to monitor civil appeals statistics going forward, as the data above do not yet fully capture the impact of the pandemic on appeals in 2020. As Chief Justice Roberts’ report rightly notes, however, appellate courts continue to show remarkable flexibility in carrying on their work. Appellate lawyers must do the same.