COVID, Crisis and Courts

10 Pages Posted: 3 Sep 2020 Last revised: 30 Sep 2020

See all articles by Colleen F. Shanahan

Colleen F. Shanahan

Columbia University - Law School

Alyx Mark

Wesleyan University Dept. of Government; American Bar Foundation

Jessica Steinberg

George Washington University - Law School

Anna E. Carpenter

The University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law

Date Written: July 31, 2020


Our country is in crisis. The inequality and oppression that lies deep in the roots and is woven in the branches of our lives has been laid bare by a virus. Relentless state violence against Black people has pushed protestors to the streets. We hope that the legislative and executive branches will respond with policy change for those who struggle the most among us: rental assistance, affordable housing, quality public education, comprehensive health and mental health care. We fear that the crisis will fade, and we will return to more of the same. Whatever lies on the other side of this crisis, one thing is certain: one part of our government grapples with the individual consequences of inequality and oppression every day and will continue to do so with even more urgency in the future: state civil courts.

Even before the pandemic, as other branches of government failed to address inequality, state civil courts became the government actor of last resort for the tens of millions of Americans each year who suffer the consequences of these failures. Now, these same courts—for the first time in history—have quickly and nimbly changed the way they provide justice. Courts’ improvisation in the face of a global public health crisis present an opportunity for social change. In contrast to burgeoning attention to state criminal courts, this role for state civil courts was hidden from those not directly involved and largely ignored by scholars. Now it is unavoidable. This essay lays out a framework for change that state civil courts should embrace as they reopen to the tidal wave of litigants.

Keywords: courts, civil procedure, access to justice, COVID

Suggested Citation

Shanahan, Colleen F. and Mark, Alyx and Steinberg, Jessica and Carpenter, Anna E., COVID, Crisis and Courts (July 31, 2020). Colleen F. Shanahan, Alyx Mark, Jessica K. Steinberg & Anna E. Carpenter, COVID, Crisis, and Courts, 99 Texas L. Rev. Online 10 (2020)., Columbia Public Law Research Paper No. 14-667, GWU Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2020-51, GWU Law School Public Law Research Paper No. 2020-51, University of Utah College of Law Research Paper No. 385, Available at SSRN:

Colleen F. Shanahan (Contact Author)

Columbia University - Law School ( email )

435 West 116th Street
New York, NY 10025
United States

Alyx Mark

Wesleyan University Dept. of Government ( email )

United States

American Bar Foundation ( email )

750 N. Lake Shore Drive
Chicago, IL 60611
United States

Jessica Steinberg

George Washington University - Law School ( email )

2000 H Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20052
United States

Anna E. Carpenter

The University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law ( email )

383 S. University Street
Salt Lake City, UT 84112-0730
United States
84112 (Fax)

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