St. Mary's Law Journal


The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic created a crisis for American society—and the federal courts were not exempt. Court facilities came to a grinding halt, cases were postponed, and judiciary employees adopted work-from-home practices. Having court operations impacted by a pandemic was not a new phenomenon, but the size, scope, and technological lift of the COVID-19 pandemic was certainly unique.

Against this background, this Article examines the history and future of pandemic preparedness planning in the federal court system and seeks to capture some of the lessons learned from initial federal court transitions to pandemic operations in 2020. The Article begins by examining pandemic planning efforts by the federal courts starting in the early 1900s and traces pandemic response measures in the courts regarding the Spanish flu and H1N1. These historical pandemics show the importance of consistent action in the federal courts regarding pandemic planning and emergency operations. The types of pandemic plans in place before COVID-19 also illustrate a largely untested system.

The Article then examines the measures taken during COVD-19 to keep courthouse doors open, including the approach by the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) and an analysis of district court and circuit court approaches. The data shows disparate early responses, with many federal courts later coalescing around the use of remote hearings for at least some types of proceedings. Later guidance from the Administrative Office of the Courts more effectively created a tiered system that could guide courts using local considerations. As such, this Article concludes that initial federal court responses to the COVID-19 pandemic could be improved during future emergencies by identifying appropriate underlying data sets, using consistent technological approaches, and creating consistency in geographic regions.

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St. Mary's University School of Law


Brent A. Bauer