The Bankruptcy Courts — even the Oklahoma Bankruptcy courts remain open for business — sort of — despite the order entered Friday afternoon by the Oklahoma Supreme Court basically closing all Oklahoma State courts until May 15, 2020 except for emergency matters in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
First of all, the Bankruptcy courts are part of the Federal court system, not the State court system. So, this order from the Oklahoma Supreme Court does not effect them in the least. That does not mean that the Federal Court system, including the Bankruptcy courts, are insensitive to the current pandemic and changes in daily life.
What it does mean is that the Federal court system, including the Bankruptcy courts, are much better positioned to respond to current events. Essentially all Federal courts went to electronic systems years ago. The Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of Oklahoma has been an all electronic courthouse since 2006. What that means is that for most purposes the Courthouse doesn’t accept paper. All filings, including new cases, are done electronically. Instead of walking into the Court Clerk’s office, standing in line with a bunch of other germy lawyers, then coming face to face with a Deputy Court Clerk to file pleadings, my computer dials up the Court’s computer and they exchange files — quickly, efficiently and antiseptically. Filing fees are likewise done electronically.
Now, that doesn’t mean that there haven’t had to be some hasty changes at the Bankruptcy Courts. Traditionally (which means prior to last week) most courts required that all pleadings (like a Bankruptcy Petition) be signed in the lawyer or his staff’s presence, and the lawyer had to retain the original signature on behalf of the court clerk’s office. More and more Bankruptcy courts around the Country have been changing those rules in the last week or so. The Western District of Oklahoma, which includes the Oklahoma City metro area and all parts west, entered an order on Thursday March 26, 2020 allowing for the execution of pleadings with electronic signatures.
Traditionally (again that means prior to last week) First Meetings of Creditors (a/k/a 341 hearings) were held in person, at the courthouse in a packed meeting room. Procedures have come down very recently for those to now be held telephonically. Hearing dockets are likewise being conducted telephonically. Now, large contested hearings with witnesses and exhibits and arguments and stuff? Good luck getting one of those set; but this too shall be accommodated eventually.
Hurricane Katrina really exposed the greater ability of the Federal system to adapt to disaster. You would think that in the 15 years since then, State courts would have learned a thing or two from their Federal peers. You would be wrong.