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Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Federal civil cases dropped 27% in 2021, but criminal cases ticked up

Despite the Covid-related challenges, 14% more federal cases proceeded to trial in 2021 than in 2020.

(CN) — Covid-19 disruptions continued to affect the federal court system through 2021, according to data published by U.S. Courts on Tuesday. The second year of the pandemic saw decreases in civil complaints alongside a slight uptick in criminal cases.

“Many persons who might have become involved in litigation or other proceedings during the pandemic likely were unable or unwilling to do so,” the report surmised. “Federal courts resumed some operations when Covid-19 infections in their regions declined, but social distancing requirements and other safety measures created challenges for staging proceedings, including trials.”

Civil filings decreased 27% between 2020 and 2021, following a near 30% increase in litigation dating back to 2017. In some districts, the decrease was attributable to a decline in major class actions. The Northern District of Florida for example recorded a near 60% reduction in person injury cases associated with fewer 3M Company earplug lawsuits.

The District of New Jersey saw nearly double the usual personal injury cases, largely due to multidistrict filings over Johnson & Johnson talcum powder.

Criminal cases increased nearly 1% between 2020 and 2021 but have dropped 20% over the last decade.

Between 2012 and 2020, cases in U.S. Bankruptcy Courts decreased by nearly 50%. Cases continued to decline by nearly 30% between 2020 and 2021.

Many federal courts suspended and resumed in-person hearings in conjunction with Covid-19 caseloads. While expanded teleconferencing allowed some hearings to be held remotely, many grand and petit juries were suspended.

“Suspending jury trials is a very, very serious business under the Constitution,” said Arthur Hellman, a professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. Hellman said he hopes courts can devise a safe way to seat juries in the case of another infectious disease, but recognized the challenges of doing so.  

“This a very large and ancient body of law, about how your jury trials should be conducted, and in particular, that you have the jurors in the room together with nobody else, and they're not communicating with anybody else during the trial,” Hellman explained. “That particular dynamic is really impossible to replicate electronically.”

Despite the challenges, 14% more federal cases proceeded to trial in 2021 than the previous year. That included an 11% increase in civil trails and 15% more criminal trials.

Civil appeals dropped 9% last year. Criminal appeals increased 10%, making up nearly a quarter of the appeals filed in 2021.

“My guess is some of some of these things are trickle-down effects,” said Merritt McAlister, an associate professor of law at the University of Florida. “If you have fewer civil cases coming into the system, it's going to be the case that appeals drop overall.”

Nearly half of new appeals filed in 2021 were filed by pro se litigants, reflecting a 9% drop compared to 2020. Prisoner petitions made up about 40% of self-represented appeals. Only 15% of criminal appellees were represented by an attorney.

Amid the changing world, fewer people sued the government last year, driving down filings with the United States as defendant by 11%.

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Categories / Courts, National

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