Judiciary Releases Annual Report and Judicial Business 2020

Along with the rest of America, the Judiciary confronted significant challenges in 2020, led by the need to meet its constitutional obligations amid a deadly global pandemic. Federal courts learned to keep operations going, despite restricted access to courth­ouses, with a quickly evolving reliance on technology and the resilience of a 30,000-strong workforce, according to the Annual Report of the Director, Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (AO), published on Tuesday.

The report details the Judiciary’s response to the COVID-19 crisis as well as its perseverance through other extraordinary challenges during the year. 

James C. Duff, the AO Director in 2020, wrote in his introduction to the report, “Five events contributed significantly to the intensity of challenges the Branch faced: the global pandemic; the tragic murder of Judge Esther Salas’ only child, Daniel, at their home in New Jersey; civil unrest in the country; a flurry of legislative activity in the lame duck session of Congress; and a cybersecurity breach that affected several federal government entities including our Branch.”

The challenges presented the Judiciary with “opportunities for improvements,” Duff noted. In addition to the many adjustments needed to operate during a pandemic, the Judiciary actively pushed for new security measures to protect judges, undertook new diversity and inclusion initiatives, and worked with other government entities on beefed up cybersecurity.

The efforts and activities of the courts throughout the year are explained in detail in the report. The accompanying Judicial Business of the United States provides statistical tables about federal caseloads by circuit, district, and offense, among other topics, and is also statutorily required.

The 2020 Judicial Business section of the report shows that total case filings in federal district courts grew 39 percent to 544,460. Civil case filings rose 58 percent to 470,581, and criminal filings declined 20 percent to 73,879. Petitions filed in U.S. bankruptcy courts dropped 21 percent to 612,561. Filings in the U.S. courts of appeals remained relatively stable, falling less than 1 percent to 48,190.

The 2020 Annual Report was Duff’s 11th and final report to Judicial Conference, Congress, and the public. He retired as Director of the AO on Feb. 1, 2021. Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., appointed Chief Judge Roslynn R. Mauskopf, of the Eastern District of New York, to replace Duff.

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By developing such policies and procedures, FinCEN would help ensure law enforcement agencies are using BSA reports to the greatest extent possible to combat money laundering and other crimes. GAO reviewed a nongeneralizable sample of 11 banks that varied in terms of their total assets and other factors, and estimated that their total direct costs for complying with the BSA ranged from about $14,000 to about $21 million in 2018. Under the BSA, banks are required to establish BSA/anti-money laundering compliance programs, file various reports, and keep certain records of transactions. GAO found that total direct BSA compliance costs generally tended to be proportionally greater for smaller banks than for larger banks. For example, such costs comprised about 2 percent of the operating expenses for each of the three smallest banks in 2018 but less than 1 percent for each of the three largest banks in GAO's review (see figure). At the same time, costs can differ between similarly sized banks (e.g., large credit union A and B), because of differences in their compliance processes, customer bases, and other factors. In addition, requirements to verify a customer's identity and report suspicious and other activity generally were the most costly areas—accounting for 29 and 28 percent, respectively, of total compliance costs, on average, for the 11 selected banks. Estimated Total Direct Costs for Complying with the Bank Secrecy Act as a Percentage of Operating Expenses and Estimated Total Direct Compliance Costs for Selected Banks in 2018 Notes: Estimated total direct compliance costs are in parentheses for each bank. Very large banks had $50 billion or more in assets. Small community banks had total of assets of $250 million or less and met the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation's community bank definition. Small credit unions had total assets of $50 million or less. Federal banking agencies routinely examine banks for BSA compliance. FinCEN data indicate that the agencies collectively cited about 23 percent of their supervised banks for BSA violations each year in their fiscal year 2015–2018 examinations. A small percentage of these violations involved weaknesses in a bank's BSA/anti-money laundering compliance program, which could require the agencies by statute to issue a formal enforcement action. Stakeholders had mixed views on industry proposals to increase the BSA's dollar thresholds for filing currency transaction reports (CTR) and suspicious activity reports (SAR). For example, banks must generally file a CTR when a customer deposits more than $10,000 in cash and a SAR if they identify a suspicious transaction involving $5,000 or more. If both thresholds were doubled, the changes would have resulted in banks filing 65 percent and 21 percent fewer CTRs and SARs, respectively, in 2018, according to FinCEN analysis. Law enforcement agencies told GAO that they generally are concerned that the reduction would provide them with less financial intelligence and, in turn, harm their investigations. In contrast, some industry associations told GAO that they support the changes to help reduce BSA compliance costs for banks. Money laundering and terrorist financing pose threats to national security and the U.S. financial system's integrity. The BSA requires financial institutions to file suspicious activity and other reports to help law enforcement investigate these and other crimes. FinCEN administers the BSA and maintains BSA reports in an electronic database that can be searched to identify relevant reports. Some banks cite the BSA as one of their most significant compliance costs and question whether BSA costs outweigh its benefits in light of limited public information about law enforcement's use of BSA reports. GAO was asked to review the BSA's implementation. 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