Many state courts have had surprising success accessing federal pandemic relief funds to help reduce case backlogs, court leaders say, but with none of that money earmarked for judiciaries, courts have had to be assertive about asking for it.
"Courts were in a sense having to request that money — or beg for that money — from governors' offices or legislators," said David Slayton, vice president of court consulting services for the National Center for State Courts.
Two months after George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis in May 2020, as protests erupted around the country, the Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators adopted a resolution that said structural racism disproportionately affects people of color and erodes public confidence in the fairness of the judicial system.
Edwin Bell, a longtime court administrator in Georgia, was named director of racial justice, equity and inclusion at the National Center for State Courts in 2020.
“Part of the challenge is an awareness of the lack of diversity and what the ways are to address it,” Bell said. “We’re not advocating for a quota system in any way, shape or form, but we do want to identify best practices.”
Technology can be a mixed bag. A recent study from the National Center for State Courts examined the use of remote hearings in courts in eight counties across Texas.
The research concluded that remote proceedings take about a third longer than in-person hearings. This was largely due to technology-related issues and a lack of preparation by participants. However, the study also found that remote proceedings take longer because more litigants can easily attend and participate in hearings.
Eleventh Circuit Administrative Judge Jennifer Bailey, who helped design Florida’s first remote jury trial, praised the findings.
“We all owe Texas and the National Center for State Courts a debt of gratitude for this study,” Judge Bailey said. “People who couldn’t take off work, who didn’t have transportation, who didn’t have childcare, could participate in court for the first time and, as a result, we’re probably getting better justice in many different ways.”
Hecht said a recent National Center for State Courts survey found state courts have an approval rating of just 64%, down from a 76% approval rating in 2018.
“Here is the scary thing,” Chief Justice Hecht said when asked if the justice system provides justice to all, 47% said “no” and another 7% didn’t have an opinion.
A first-of-its-kind study by the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) surveyed judges on the impact of remote proceedings on courts and court users. Eight Texas jurisdictions and 52 judges tracked their judicial time and provided qualitative data on the benefits and disadvantages of remote hearings.
Remote hearings have improved access to justice in many cases and made it easier to attend hearings for rural litigants, families, and lower-income individuals. However, the digital divide has presented some resistance.
Backers of remote trials — including judges, consultants and academics – argue that remote options improve participation overall, especially for potential jurors who don't have the time to spend days in a courtroom or don't have a convenient way to get there.
This is not only important for the public's perception of justice, says Paula Hannaford-Agor, but juries with varying backgrounds bring a wider range of experience to the jury pool. She is the director of the Center for Jury Studies at the National Center for State Courts.
Remote court hearings take about one-third (34%) longer than in-person hearings, according to a study by the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) on the impact of remote hearings on courts and court users.
In addition to hearing length, NCSC shared several key findings relating to the pros and cons of remote hearings, its impact on judicial well-being, and recommendations for the future of remote proceedings.
FACT SHEET: The White House and Department of Justice Announced 99 Law Schools in 35 States and Puerto Rico Continue to Answer the Attorney General’s Call to Action for Stronger Access to Justice and Court Reform on Eviction Prevention
On June 24, 2021, the Biden-Harris Administration announced initiatives to promote housing stability and Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta sent a pathbreaking letter to state courts encouraging them to immediately establish eviction diversion programs and directing them to federal resources and the National Center for State Courts diversion tool. State Supreme Courts in Michigan, Indiana, and Texas adopted statewide eviction diversion programs, along with jurisdictions in 31 states.
Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Collins J. Seitz, Jr. and Justice Tamika R. Montgomery- Reeves released the “Improving Diversity in the Delaware Bench and Bar Strategic Plan.” The National Center for State Courts and the non-profit AccessLex Institute worked on the 101- page report. “The Strategic Plan provides tangible steps that will have a real and lasting impact,” said Delaware State Bar Association President Kathleen Miller.
Even if a judge sentences someone convicted of a crime to pay zero dollars in fines, their court costs — outside of paying for legal assistance — can reach $1,000 or more. Local prosecutors usually recommend jail or probation, and not fines, for people who have committed a crime, says Sheboygan County District Attorney Joel Urmanski. But court costs still quickly add up for people convicted of crimes across Wisconsin and have increased over the past two decades, according to a 2018 report by the Wisconsin Director of State Courts Office and National Center for State Courts.
The first remote hearings were held in the '80s with closed-circuit television, and e-filing has been accepted by some courts since the late '90s. But evolution has been uneven, as Jim McMillan of the US National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Virginia, explains: “the willingness of courts to change is often greatly affected by their customers – the legal professionals – and the tech industry that serves them.”
State Rep. Jon Jacobsen, R-Council Bluffs, is seeking to establish specialty probate courts in Iowa. “Without an appropriation to fund the two associate probate judge positions required to create the new probate courts, two district associate judges currently hearing cases would need to be reassigned,” said Iowa Judicial Branch Communications Director, Steve Davis. “According to calculations using the workload formulas developed by the National Center for State Courts, the Iowa Judicial Branch is currently short 16 district associate judges based on the state’s caseload."
A bill that would reallocate magistrates in West Virginia passed the House Judiciary Committee Monday after a subcommittee made changes to the original bill. The last reallocation of the magistrates came 20 years ago after the legislature had the state Supreme Court do a caseload study. The High Court used the National Center for State Courts to do that study in 2001. The same organization did another caseload study for the state in 2015.
New Mexico legislators are considering new criminal penalties aimed at protecting state and local judges and their immediate families from threats and the malicious sharing of home addresses and other personal information.
States each devise their own judicial security, with an array of approaches to protecting judges specifically from assault or under blanket protections for public officials. States including Colorado, Florida and New Jersey last year enacted laws to limit public access to information about judges or ban disclosure of certain personal information with criminal and civil penalties, according to the National Center for State Courts.
In 2021, there were about 115 public state discipline proceedings against judges, according to the Center for Judicial Ethics at the National Center for State Courts. More than half – approximately 55% – were settled pursuant to an agreement; and just two judges were removed from office in 2021.
As in many states, the Michigan Judicial Tenure Commission can investigate and file formal complaints, but it is the state's high court that decides on discipline or removal. And, as in other states, discipline is rare.
House Bill 81 would require courts to assess a person’s ability to pay before imposing fines for a conviction and would allow cost exemptions for people who are declared indigent. Rep. Micaela Lara Cadena, D-Mesilla, the legislation’s sponsor, said the measure makes sense in part because of money wasted in an attempt to collect fines and fees from people who can’t pay.
“The National Center for State Courts has … found that fees and fines frequently cost more to collect than the revenue generated,” according to the report. It adds such costs also “create perverse incentives when used to fund court staff salaries, and disproportionately affect the indigent.”
The Quorum Court commissioned a study of Washington county's criminal justice system by the National Center for State Courts. The $60,000 study recommended the county expand services for pretrial detainees to avoid the need for them to be incarcerated, with suggestions including lower bond amounts, a mental health court, expanded mental health and substance abuse services, electronic monitoring and reminder services for those released.
The National Center for State Courts (NCSC)’s civics education essay contest gives 3rd- through 12th-grade students the opportunity to understand and explain the importance and the role of the United States government.
Since last summer, many states have begun to implement diversion programs in their own court systems. But these courts cannot do it alone. They need partners like the National Center for State Courts, which recently launched an Eviction Diversion Initiative that will provide funding to state courts to hire staff members and ensure the sustainability of eviction prevention programs.
Nebraska's courts have adapted well to the coronavirus pandemic with help from new technology, but the judicial branch is struggling with worker shortages, the state's top judge said recently.
The courts have struggled with worker shortages, similar to other parts of state government. The judicial branch has implemented hiring and retention bonuses to try to address the problem and is working with the National Center for State Courts to conduct a workload and salary study in Nebraska.
Chicago will provide free legal assistance for low-income tenants facing eviction under a new program aimed at boosting housing stability. The city’s program could help tenants navigate a stressful, complicated court process, and level out a power imbalance with landlords who are more likely to have an attorney, said Samira Nazem, former associate director of advocacy and programs at the Chicago Bar Foundation who now works on evictions for the National Center for State Courts.
Judges are expressing concerns about safety after Nye County, Nevada, commissioners voted last month to allow weapons in most areas of the region’s courthouses.
Nye County is not alone in taking on the issue of weapons inside courthouses. Bill Raftery is a senior analyst with the National Center for State Courts in Williamsburg, Virginia. He wrote an article in 2017 detailing all of the different approaches taken by states on the issue. “(The debate) has been going on for decades, if not centuries,” Raftery said. He said the think tank recommends that courthouses bar firearms for everyone other than law enforcement officers who have been authorized to provide court security.
An overturned conviction in Missouri is raising new questions about video testimony in criminal court cases nationwide, and the ruling could have ripple effects through a justice system increasingly reliant on remote technology as it struggles with a backlog of cases during the coronavirus pandemic.
Remote technology has helped drive down no-show rates in many areas by allowing people to attend even if they have to work or care for children, said David Slayton with the National Center for State Courts. Still, especially in criminal proceedings, testifying in person can help show witnesses are speaking voluntarily.