Bridget McCormack ’91, retired chief justice of Michigan’s Supreme Court, urges courts to embrace pandemic-era innovations at Brennan Lecture

The Covid-19 pandemic inspired a flurry of innovation in American courts that increased court access for millions of Americans, Bridget McCormack ’91, retired chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, said in the 28th annual Brennan Lecture on State Courts and Social Justice. Those changes should be carried forward, she argued.

Bridget McCormack
Bridget McCormack

The October 5 lecture was hosted by the Institute for Judicial Administration and entitled “The Disruption We Needed: Accelerated Innovation in Courts and Access to Justice.”

In her remarks, McCormack, who retired from the bench in 2022 and is now the chief executive officer of the American Arbitration Association, noted that conducting proceedings remotely during the pandemic allowed people who had previously missed court dates—for reasons such as lack of childcare or transportation or fear of lost wages—to participate in their hearings.

This and other pandemic-era innovations should not be abandoned, she said, noting that many courts have returned to the status quo and require people to attend in-person. “The public shouldn’t lose a valuable new tool for accessing justice,” McCormack said.

Selected remarks by Bridget McCormack from the Brennan Lecture:

“The cases that litigants manage on their own are not cases we teach in law school, for the most part. They rarely get appealed, but they are high-stakes cases involving shelter, personal safety, family, financial stability. I wish law school started with 1Ls watching civil court dockets in state courts, eviction dockets, debt collection dockets, family court dockets. I imagine it would spark some solution-ing that those of us many decades into our legal careers have a more challenging time seeing.” 

“In addition to the benefits we saw for litigants, remote proceedings could be part of the solution to trial court backlogs because of their increase for capacity; visiting judges can conduct remote proceedings for matters suited for those proceedings, freeing up physical courtrooms for jury trials and other proceedings better handled in person. And the efficiency of proceedings would only improve over time as courts, attorneys, litigants and other stakeholders became more familiar with new processes and technologies.… But with some exceptions, courts have returned to doing things like they did in 2019.”

“We hear and read a lot about polarization and partisanship threatening to undermine the independence and the integrity of our judicial system, and I believe those are real threats.…But I think the inability of courts to embrace changes that give people more options to access justice is at least as significant a threat.” 

Posted October 20, 2023.