Estimating the Need for Additional Bankruptcy Judges in Light of the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Benjamin Iverson (BYU Marriott School of Business), Jared A. Ellias (University of California, Hastings College of the Law), and Mark Roe (Harvard Law School)

Ben Iverson
Jared A. Ellias
Mark Roe

We recently estimated the bankruptcy system’s ability to absorb an anticipated surge of financial distress among American consumers, businesses, and municipalities as a result of COVID-19.

An increase in the unemployment rate has historically been a leading indicator of the volume of bankruptcy filings that occur months later.  If prior trends repeat this time, the May 2020 unemployment rate of 13.3% will lead to a substantial increase in all types of bankruptcy filings.  Mitigation, governmental assistance, the unique features of the COVID-19 pandemic, and judicial triage should reduce the potential volume of bankruptcies to some extent, or make it less difficult to handle, and it is plausible that the impact of the recent unemployment spike will be smaller than history would otherwise predict. We hope this will be so.  Yet, even assuming that the worst-case scenario could be averted, our analysis suggests substantial, temporary investments in the bankruptcy system may be needed.

Our model assumes that Congress would like to have enough bankruptcy judges such that the average judge would not be pressed to work more than was the case during the last bankruptcy peak in 2010, when the bankruptcy system was pressured and the public caseload figures indicate that judges worked 50 hour weeks on average.

To keep the judiciary’s workload at 2010 levels, we project that, in the worst-case scenario, the bankruptcy system could need as many as 246 temporary judges, a very large number. But even in our most optimistic model, the bankruptcy system will still need 50 additional temporary bankruptcy judgeships, as well as the continuation of all current temporary judgeships.

Our memorandum’s conclusions were endorsed by an interdisciplinary group of academics and forwarded to Congress.