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Bar’s COVID-19 Pandemic Recovery Task Force discusses court backlogs

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‘We know that the cases have got to move in order for Florida’s economy to recover’

Judge Margaret SteinbeckCourt officials will be looking to The Florida Bar in a two-pronged legislative effort to not only stave off budget cuts in light of shriveled state finances but also get extra funds to move cases backlogged because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Help us tell the story of how much we need the resources that we have as well as the resources we’re asking for so the courts can serve your clients and the community,” 20th Circuit Judge Margaret Steinbeck, chair of the Supreme Court’s Trial Court Budget Commission, told the Bar’s COVID-19 Pandemic Recovery Task Force on November 2.

“It would be devastating for us to suffer the cuts that have been proposed,” she continued. “We think it’s our job to make sure we are actually telling the funders, the Legislature, what it is we need to be a fully functioning, effective, and responsive court system.”

Bar President-elect Michael Tanner asked Steinbeck, TCBC Vice Chair and Fourth Circuit Chief Judge Mark Mahon, and State Courts Administrator Lisa Kiel to tell the task force “how we can help you.”

Steinbeck brought the results of OSCA studies and predictions about how the pandemic is affecting the courts.

“We are estimating we will have disposed of or adjudicated 2.5 million cases in this current fiscal year,” she said. “We also know that we’re going to have a large and unanticipated number of cases pending when we start the next fiscal year in July. There is an anticipated almost one million cases over the norm as a result of the impacts of COVID-19 on the court system and the litigants and the public that we serve.”

That includes almost an extra 5,000 delayed jury trials.

Aside from cases that have been delayed, Steinbeck said many cases won’t be filed until the pandemic eases and economic conditions improve, and the pandemic as well as related impacts will generate even more litigation.

To handle that, Steinbeck said the courts are asking lawmakers for an additional $12.5 million in each of the next three years. That would pay for senior judges, general magistrates, case managers, and mediation services to help plow through the backlogs.

But even as the TCBC is working to define resources needed to address pending cases, state officials are looking at budget reductions because the pandemic-slowed economy has slashed state revenues.

The branch has been asked to project cutting 8.5% and 10% of its current allocations for trial courts, or $41 million and $48 million respectively, Steinbeck said.

“It would be devastating for us to suffer the cuts that have been proposed,” she said.

Mahon said he’s particularly concerned about criminal jury trials. He said while some jury trials are resuming, they tend to be in less complex cases involving less serious charges. Murder and complex felony cases will require more court and jury time, and when Phase 3 of the court reopening process begins the speedy trial limit will return, he said.

Likewise, he said more complex civil cases are being delayed or not filed.

“Our inability to bring juries in for six or seven months has created a clog in the system and we really struggle to find out what that is,” Mahon said. “…In the criminal arena we might be substituting a public safety concern for a public health concern if we are not able to handle these criminal trials effectively.”

Steinbeck said the projections are based on several assumptions, including that an effective COVID-19 vaccine will be developed and distributed by next summer and that regular jury trials resume in the third quarter of 2021. But she also said they have experience from the Great Recession, when certain types of cases surged while others were delayed.

The task force, though, did get some hard numbers on preliminary impacts in the TCBC’s recovery plan, which was presented to members. Those statistics included:

• In the first month of the pandemic, when courts largely ceased in-person operations and many non-court routine activities were halted, circuit courts saw a 52% decline in filings, county court filings dropped 60%, and civil traffic filings declined 76%.

• An estimated 185,000 cases were not filed from March through June because of the pandemic.

• There were 1.89 million cases pending in the court system in June, a 28.4% increase from the previous June.

• An estimated 1,180 civil and criminal jury trials were delayed between March and June.

Discussion between the judges and task force members ranged from the possible availability of federal pandemic relief funds to a suggestion from the Trial Lawyers Section to use county court judges sitting temporarily as circuit judges to address circuit backlogs.

Steinbeck said the expected backlog in jury trials will be at both the county and circuit court levels and with the recent increase in county court civil jurisdiction to $30,000 (and going to $50,000 on January 1, 2023), the TCBC expects county judges to be fully occupied with their own jury cases.

As for federal funding, she said legislative officials are exploring where CARES Act funds are available for various state needs. Steinbeck said using such funds to buy requested personal protective equipment for courtrooms and enable remote proceedings would help.

Kiel added that such temporary federal funds are an additional source to handle the temporary problem of moving backlogged cases.

Steinbeck said even with the uncertainties about case backlog predictions, there’s little chance the TCBC is requesting too many resources. She said the main limiting factor was not money, but the number of courtrooms and judges to accommodate the delayed cases.

And there’s no downside to having funds identified for all three years.

“This is a three-year plan. If we accidently overshoot, good. We’ll get out of the hole faster,” Steinbeck said. “If we can solve it in a year instead of three…I don’t think that hurts anybody and I think that serves the public well….

“We know that the cases have got to move in order for Florida’s economy to recover.”

Tanner and Bar President Dori Foster-Morales said the Bar would be ready to support the TCBC and the courts in their budget requests.

“You want all the help we can give you in telling the story and we will certainly do whatever we can in that regard,” Tanner said. “We in Bar leadership will do everything we can to assist you…. We will make ourselves available on short notice to get over there and tell the story.”

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