Courts nationwide responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by introducing new technology at an unprecedented scale so they could bring their operations online, according to a recent Pew report. However, because a majority of states have decentralized court systems—with budgeting and administration handled at the local and county levels—much of that technology explosion unfolded in a patchwork. State supreme courts often provided broad guidance but left the details up to local jurisdictions.
As a result, people’s experiences with local civil court systems varied widely, depending on where they lived. Many had to navigate difficult logistical and financial circumstances as they pursued their legal claims. To help draw broader lessons from the many changes made to keep courts operating during the pandemic, researchers at Wesleyan University in Connecticut have created a database that compiles more than 20,000 unique state court guidance documents. Collected from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, the documents were issued from February 2020 to March 2021.
This repository will help researchers and the public better understand what worked, where courts may have fallen short, and how policymakers can carve a path forward, particularly as technology becomes a permanent fixture of the American legal system. The Wesleyan database provides an opportunity for court personnel to learn from one another and to look across jurisdictions. It also offers a model for how to analyze court rules, identify trends, and develop universal policy solutions that advance access for people, especially the millions who navigate the legal system without a lawyer.
Alyx Mark, an assistant professor of government at Wesleyan, is the lead researcher on the database project. “I was observing a diverse range of rule and policy modifications being made by people in lots of different roles within court systems and thought it might be valuable to attempt to capture all of this activity, both for my own research and other scholars, as well as for court reformers, who have been calling for some of these changes for a long time,” Mark explained.
“The data collection effort has demonstrated to me just how complex and diverse our state courts and their approaches to policy change are,” she added. “I think that before the pandemic we might have been able to say this anecdotally, but when you ‘see’ it in this snapshot, it becomes quite clear that people are living in 51 systems that have different ways of developing, implementing, and communicating these critical changes.”
The database, launched Dec.1, 2021, helped to inform Pew’s report. The orders that Mark and her team collected and analyzed illuminated the barriers to access faced by people with disabilities and those with limited English proficiency when navigating court systems that had moved online at an unprecedented pace and scale. The National Center for Access to Justice’s 2021 Justice Index highlights that these problems were common during a year dominated by the pandemic. The index gives states a score from 0 to 100 on their adoption of specific policies related to disability accessibility and language access. Last year, 44 states scored below 50 for disability accessibility while 31 scored below 50 for language access.
It’s not surprising that Pew’s analysis of nearly 10,000 state trial and intermediate appellate court pandemic emergency orders from March to August 2020, collected by Mark and her team, showed that less than 3% of those orders mentioned resources or accommodations for people with disabilities or those with limited English proficiency, and none mentioned technology accommodations for these groups. These insights present an opportunity for courts to re-examine how they improve pathways to access and provide information to all entering the legal system.
As the pandemic eases, court officials are taking stock of the lessons learned over the past two years. Collecting and analyzing data on their operations can help them and researchers identify gaps in access and develop approaches to build a more open, efficient, and equitable system. Wesleyan’s database provides an opportunity to look at court rules, policies, and practices across jurisdictions and time in a way that courts have never been able to do. This should ultimately lead courts to develop broader, lasting reforms of how they do business.
Qudsiya Naqui leads research on civil courts and technology for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ civil legal system modernization project.