Around this time last year, I took a look at statistics showing that the filing of new civil appeals had declined in federal courts and in Maine. As I observed then, the 2020 statistics had not yet fully captured the impact of the pandemic on appeals and civil appeal statistics would bear monitoring. I decided to check back a year later, and it appears that the trend of declining appeals accelerated in 2021.
As Chief Justice Roberts’ 2021 year-end report discloses, new filings in federal courts of appeals fell from 48,190 in 2020 to 44,546, a decline of 9%; the decrease in civil appeals matched this decline. This trend can also be seen in the First Circuit statistics; there, total appeals for the 12-month period ending June 30, 2021 fell over 15% as compared to the prior 12-month period ending June 30, 2020. Even more starkly, total civil appeals for the 12-month period ending June 30, 2021 fell to 494 from 653 the prior year – a 24% decline. The same downward trend is evidenced in the Law Court statistics. Total civil filings fell from 360 to 345 for fiscal year 2021. This 4% decline appears less dramatic, but it hides a steeper decrease in general civil appeals. In that category, new appeals fell from 114 to 80, a nearly 30% decline. (Overall civil appeals fell less sharply because of a substantial increase in child protective appeals).
The continued decline in civil appeals can, in one respect, be attributed to the pandemic: it is the natural follow-on effect of decreased civil case filings in district courts beginning in 2020. As Chief Justice Roberts’ year-end report shows, civil case filings in federal district courts fell in 2020 and 2021 (once one excludes an unusually large number of filings associated with an earplug products liability multidistrict litigation). Filings in Maine’s trial courts also saw a substantial decline in new civil filings in 2020. But the question, yet to be answered, is whether the decline in general civil appeals will be reversed – or whether it is the new normal.
Either way, the decline in appeals does not change the importance of having appellate counsel handle those appeals that are filed. Perhaps that is the subject of a blog post for another day.