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Florida Courts Seek Money To Dig Out Of Pandemic ‘Hole’

Miami Herald
Miami Herald

TALLAHASSEE --- Florida’s state court system needs more than $16 million to address increased workloads caused by the coronavirus pandemic, according to a budget request submitted last week to the Legislature.

The major portion of the request --- more than $12.5 million --- is aimed at helping trial courts deal with a projected backlog of more than 990,000 cases due to COVID-19, the request says.

Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady shuttered courthouses in March, as the highly contagious virus began to spread throughout the state.

The shutdown of circuit and county courts --- which handle a gamut of legal disputes including contract disputes, divorces, evictions, foreclosures, traffic infractions and criminal charges --- also stopped jury trials from taking place. Between March and June, 1,180 jury trials were put on hold, according to the budget request.

The number of cases filed at the courts dropped dramatically during the months-long shutdown. Judges, however, conducted many proceedings by telephone or video.

More than seven months after the coronavirus first appeared in the state, courts are slowly beginning to select jury pools so in-person trials can resume.

But social-distancing requirements are slowing down the process, and the court system projects nearly 5,000 jury trials will be delayed through June 30, 2021, the end of the current fiscal year.

Courts are going to have to deal with a backlog of cases that languished during the shutdown, “normal” cases that would typically be filed in any given year and an onslaught of cases directly related to fallout from the pandemic.

“The financial hardship issues, the evictions and those type of things. All of that is going to create a pretty good-size mouse in the snake,” 4th Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Mark Mahon, a former legislator whose circuit includes Duval, Clay and Nassau counties, told The News Service of Florida in a phone interview.

The state court system is seeking a total of $37.6 million in non-recurring funds over the next three years to address the trial courts’ coronavirus-related workload.

“We recognize it’s going to take a pretty decent period of time to dig out of this hole,” Mahon, vice-chairman of the Florida Trial Court Budget Commission, said.

The $12.55 million coronavirus-related request for the 2021-2022 budget year includes about $5.7 million for general magistrates, court program specialists and trial court staff attorneys, as the system expects a backlog of 990,074 cases when the fiscal year begins on July 1. The request also includes about $5.8 million for senior judges.

As courts reopen, chief judges’ top priority will be pending criminal cases that have, in some instances, left defendants languishing behind bars while they await an opportunity to have their cases considered by juries.

“There are people who have been sitting in jail while speedy trial has been tolled for what, seven months, now,” Mahon said. “That’s just very problematic.”

According to the budget request, the trial courts estimate 307 additional full-time temporary judicial or quasi-judicial positions are needed to address cases that will be generated as a result of the pandemic.

“When that time comes and we can start to resume some more normal functions, I think you’re going to see an emphasis put on trials, and that’s where a need for more people is going to be so critical,” 9th Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Donald Myers said in an interview. “That’s where we’re going to be looking for bodies to help us try cases just to try to move through the logjam.”

The economic fallout of COVID-19 poses a similar challenge for courts as the foreclosure crisis more than a decade ago. Lawmakers allocated an additional $35 million over a four-year period for courts to address Florida’s housing market collapse as well as technology and operational issues related to a massive increase in cases. The bulk of the funds --- $25 million --- came from the National Mortgage Foreclosure Settlement.

Mahon, who selected a grand jury last week for the first time in six months, expects a flood of new cases, including death penalty cases, which can be expensive.

Restarting jury selection and trials amid a pandemic can be problematic, the judges said, because of social-distancing efforts. For example, Mahon said about 300 potential jurors would normally congregate inside the courthouse on Mondays, prior to COVID-19. Now, jury selection is spread throughout the week.

“You’ve got to be incredibly careful that you don’t present a risk to them when you bring them in. That’s what makes the felony docket so difficult,” he added.

Some people are choosing to defer jury duty because they are medically vulnerable or concerned about being exposed to the highly contagious virus, which continues to spread throughout Florida.

“That to me is one of the more difficult problems that we face,” he said. “It’s a very, very complicated issue.”

Myers, whose circuit includes Orange and Osceola counties, told the News Service his courts conducted more than 60,000 remote hearings during the first six months of the pandemic.

Myers said they will begin holding jury trials and resume grand jury proceedings this week, and start an in-person felony trial next week. Court officials will evaluate the proceedings and determine if any changes are necessary.

“Unfortunately, I think we’re in groundhog day here for at least the next six months. Everything is just repeating itself. We’re making refinements. We’re trying to figure out ways to utilize the technology more efficiently and effectively, but until we have some reason to believe that the number of cases is going to decline, like a vaccine, I think we’re just going to continue to do what we do until that time comes,” Myers said.

The move to jury trials “can only happen because we find ourselves at a relatively low rate of positivity in our community,” the chief judge added.

The courts’ request for additional funding comes as lawmakers face a projected $2.7 billion budget shortfall when they return to Tallahassee to craft the state spending plan during the legislative session that begins in March.

“Of course we’re always trying to be very sensitive to the political climate that we’re in,” Mahon said. “Everyone in the state is struggling.”

The courts are “not over-asking,” he maintained.

“Whether it’s going to be enough or not, I don’t know,” Mahon added. “It will let us start digging out of the hole a little bit.”

Dara Kam / News Service of Florida
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