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US courts saw drop in case filings, uptick in judge complaints in 2022

An annual report showed reductions in case filings across all federal courts, even as they began to go back to pre-pandemic operations.

(CN) — While many courts returned to their usual pre-pandemic operations in 2022 as the Covid-19 crisis receded, most received fewer case filings than the year prior, according to a report released Tuesday by the U.S. judicial system.

The latest Judicial Business report from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts provides statistical data about federal caseloads by circuit, district and offense for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2022, compared with data for prior years.

Total case filings in U.S. district courts fell 18% last year to 343,253. Civil case filings declined 20% to 274,771, and criminal filings dropped by 8% to 68,482. 

The report also tracked the number of complaints filed against judges, which went up by 19%. Of the 1,520 complaints last year, 57% were made against district judges, 25% were against circuit judges, 14% against magistrate judges and 4% against bankruptcy judges.

The Fourth Circuit received the highest number of complaints (249) for a federal appeals court while the Ninth Circuit had the lowest (166). Most of the allegations made against judges in the circuit courts were related to the merits of a decision or ruling (1,319), followed by other misconduct (339); discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex or other factors (252); retaliation for participating in the complaint process (125); and delayed decision (118).

Chief judges dismissed 1,135 complaints in whole or in part, terminating 983 of them, due to the complaint being directly related to the merits of decisions or on the grounds that the allegations were frivolous or lacked sufficient evidence.

Civil case filings in the district courts have declined by 3%, or 8,165 cases, since 2018, with the largest decreases occurring in cases involving prisoner petitions, social security, labor laws, real property, civil rights, and environment cases. During that period, district courts have reported more filings related to tort actions, personal injuries, immigration, contract actions, securities, commodities and exchange, and banking.

The highest reductions in criminal cases occurred in filings for defendants charged with crimes related to marijuana, which went down 22% to 1,207 filings, and regulatory system offenses, which went down 16% to 1,201 filings. Filings for drug crimes in general fell by 31% from 2021.

Organized crime cases brought under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act rose 19%, up 111 cases to 685. The largest spike in such filings occurred in the Eastern District of New York, which reported an increase of 37%. 

Accounting for 28% of total criminal filings, accusations of immigration offenses remained relatively steady, declining less than 1%. The Southern District of Texas experienced the largest decrease in criminal immigration filings, with increases reported in the District of New Mexico, the Southern District of California and the Western District of Texas.  

Sixty percent of all federal judicial districts had lower caseloads. Districts with the largest decreases included the District of Guam, followed by the Eastern District of Arkansas and the Southern District of Indiana. The biggest increases were reported in the Eastern District of Louisiana, the Eastern District of Oklahoma and the Northern District of New York.

According to the report, the caseload in the Eastern District of Oklahoma "again exceeded historical norms" because of the U.S. Supreme Court's 2020 decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma, which shifted the jurisdiction over many offenses involving Native Americans on reservation lands from state court to federal court.

Filings across the 12 regional courts of appeals also fell by 6% to 41,839 filings in 2022. Nearly half of all new appeals were filed by pro se litigants and were mostly prisoner petitions. 

There was a reduction in appeals filings involving drugs, immigration, general offenses and traffic offenses, and an increase in cases related to firearms and explosives, sex offenses, justice systems offenses, violent offenses, property offenses, fraud, regulatory offenses and unclassified offenses.

Appeals of district court decisions to the Federal Circuit – the only federal appellate bench with jurisdiction to hear patent case appeals – increased from 34 to 323, and appeals of decisions by the International Trade Commission also went up significantly from 13 to 27.

Bankruptcy appellate panels saw their lowest level of filings in the last 20 years. Nationwide, debtors filed 50,730 fewer bankruptcy petitions than in 2021, continuing a downward trend that began since the start of the pandemic. 

Magistrate judges handled fewer civil matters on referral from district judges last year, but did see a 17% increase in their own presiding civil cases. Since 2018, magistrates have handled more felony pretrial matters, but fewer felony preliminary proceedings, primarily because of the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Judge Roslynn R. Mauskopf, director of the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, released an additional annual report Tuesday detailing the agency's efforts toward ensuring safety for the judges and staff in the courts and more secure and user-friendly information technology.

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