Minnesota court case backlog back to pre-pandemic levels after huge spike

The court case backlog facing the Minnesota Judicial Branch is once again at pre-pandemic levels for the first time in nearly five years.

Court officials announced the news Tuesday, crediting the branch’s strategy to use remote hearings, special criminal backlog events and additional staff for reducing the case accumulation.

“Eliminating the pandemic backlog was a vital step toward ensuring our courts can continue to deliver timely access to justice to the people of Minnesota,” said Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Natalie Hudson. “Our success in reaching our backlog reduction goal is a testament to the hard work of our district court judges and staff, the ambitious leadership undertaken by the Minnesota Judicial Council, and the strategic support provided by State Court Administration.”

The court system noted in its annual report last fall that the backlog of major criminal cases had climbed to nearly 50,000 in 2021, a 58% jump from June 2019 when the backlog stood at 31,607 cases.

That spike coincided with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the Judicial Branch to make several changes for health and safety purposes and created “significant challenges” for the system. As a result, case clearance rates dropped to record lows in the 2020 (80%) and 2021 (85%) fiscal years, creating that additional case buildup.

However, using the strategy noted above, the courts started cutting into that backlog in the second half of 2021. By the end of last June, the backlog wasn’t even 2,700 cases above the pre-pandemic pending caseload of 35,682 cases.

The Judicial Branch says its efforts to reduce the backlog coincided with feedback from the public, and results from its Access and Fairness Survey — conducted every three years — released this spring showed the highest level of satisfaction with the courts since 2008.