Through a combination of advance planning, expanded use of technology, and the dedication of thousands of employees, the federal Judiciary’s response to the pandemic has enabled courts to continue to operate, while ensuring the health and safety of the public and court personnel, U.S. Senior District Judge David G. Campbell told Congress on Thursday.
Judge Campbell testified before the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet at a hearing on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the federal court system. Campbell appeared on behalf of the Judicial Conference of the United States, the national policy-making body of the federal Judiciary. He chairs the conference’s Committee on Rules of Practice and Procedure for the Federal Courts.
“Like other institutions throughout the United States and the world, the operations of the federal judiciary have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Campbell said in his prepared testimony for the subcommittee. “I am pleased to report, however, that the federal courts continue to operate in all categories of cases despite unprecedented challenges.”
The courts, he said, by necessity, also continue to take a localized approach to reflect the disparate nature and evolving impact of the pandemic in various regions of the country.
Campbell provided the lawmakers with a comprehensive list of the measures taken by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts and the courts since the pandemic hit the United States earlier this year. Among these are:
- The inter-governmental Federal Judiciary COVID-19 Task Force, created in February, greatly facilitated the Judiciary’s rapid response to the pandemic. The task force continues to monitor and assess the impact of the virus on court operations nationally and to provide advice on emerging issues. It is comprised of chief judges and court executives, AO staff, and representatives from the General Services Administration, the U.S. Marshals Service, the Federal Protective Service, and the U.S. Attorneys Office.
- The AO and the task force developed guidance to the courts on a wide range of pandemic-related issues in the areas of bankruptcy administration, budgets, court interpreting, court reporting, facilities and security, finance and internal control, financial disclosure, human resources and benefits, information technology, jury duty, naturalization ceremonies, probation and pretrial services, procurement, and telework.
- The Federal Judiciary COVID-19 Recovery Guidelines were published in April to provide courts with gating criteria to consider as they prepare for the phased return of courthouse operations. The criteria included the number of COVID-19 cases in the court facility within a 14-day period; a sustained downward trend of cumulative daily COVID-19 case counts over a 14-day period in the community; and the rescission of local restrictive movement or shelter-in-place orders.
- The Judiciary greatly expanded its use of technology, including temporarily authorizing the use of video and teleconferencing technologies, increasing capacity to handle bandwidth strains, obtaining the necessary equipment and licenses for certain platforms, providing the public and the media access to listen to proceedings, and strengthening its IT infrastructure to address the greater use of telework.
- Individual courts are developing protocols to resume jury trials and grand juries that are tailored to meet the conditions in their district’s courthouses that will minimize health and safety risks for all participants.
- Bankruptcy courts have entered orders and revised procedures on a wide variety of topics, including courthouse closures and clerk’s office operations, meetings of creditors, deadlines and time periods in pending cases, electronic signature requirements, and access to telephonic and video technology for hearings.
The greater demands that the pandemic has placed on courts has created an urgent need for additional funding, Campbell said. The Judiciary is seeking supplemental appropriations of $36.6 million for ongoing impacts of the pandemic on federal court operations. Earlier this year, Congress provided the Judiciary with $7.5 million in supplemental appropriations under the CARES Act to address immediate information technology needs and increased testing and treatment costs in probation and pretrial services programs.
The Judiciary is also in the process of amending its rules to include emergency procedures it might need to take in the future. Conference committees began by soliciting comments from lawyers, judges, parties, and the public on challenges encountered during the COVID-19 pandemic. The deadline for submitting comments was June 1, and many of them were posted on the Judiciary’s website.