The NCSC’s Court Statistics Project provides a first broad look at the effect the pandemic has had on state court filings, as detailed in its recently released “2020 Incoming Cases in State Courts Caseload Highlights.” The highlights reflect dramatic changes in incoming state court cases and case processing since the pandemic’s onset.

In 2020, the first year of the pandemic, case filings decreased 28% overall. The impact was very dependent on case type: some case types dropped by 50% or more while filings in other areas actually rose. Focusing in on the civil side, overall filings dropped by 26%. The greatest percent decreases were in landlord/tenant eviction cases (down 55%) and mortgage foreclosure (down 53%). These decreases were likely driven by state and federal eviction moratoria adopted during the pandemic. 

In addition, domestic case filings were down 20% in 2020. The largest decreases in this category were in child support cases, which saw a drop of 48% for private filings and 38% for filings from state child enforcement agencies. Another important decrease came in child welfare cases, likely in part because children and social workers had less contact in 2020. Traffic/local ordinance caseloads dropped 33% from 2019. 

Decreases were not universal, however. There were increases in several case types nationally, with the largest in habeas corpus cases at 46%. As the report notes, it is possible that this increase in petitions was a direct result of the pandemic, as more prisoners were seeking release on compassionate grounds. Employment discrimination also increased by 3%. This data provides a unique perspective into the impact of the pandemic on people’s lives, their evolving justice needs, and the cases that are brought to our state courts for resolution.  

In terms of preliminary numbers for 2021, the NCSC reports that courts are starting to get back to pre-pandemic levels. “Early 2021 numbers show courts are beginning to catch up,” said Nicole Waters, director of the Court Statistics Project and of the NCSC’s Research Division. “We anticipate the recovery to pre-pandemic numbers of filings to continue into 2022 and possibly 2023 for domestic and housing-related cases.”

The pandemic—and its impact on everything in our lives and our courts, including state court filings—has now continued into its third calendar year. There is a new interest in the ongoing impact of the pandemic on filings in our courts, and with it a renewed interest in filings more generally. To shine a brighter light on this area, IAALS is finalizing a multifaceted study to explore civil case filings over a longer timeframe—from 16 to 41 years—across four states: California, Minnesota, Ohio, and Texas. IAALS will be releasing the report from this study this spring, with the goal of providing important new insights into long-term filing trends and areas for additional focus. 

We hope this renewed focus on filing trends will continue to reorient our thinking across the legal system, including a deeper understanding of the cases brought to the courts by the public. While it is critical to look at filings in the short term given the current challenges of the pandemic, we also urge courts and reform-oriented organizations to take a longer view of filings to inform planning, policymaking, reform efforts, and a deeper understanding of the role our civil justice system plays in resolving problems in people’s lives.