Canady: ‘Pandemic has truly been a transformative experience for our court system’
As they look for budget cuts in a COVID-19-battered economy, Florida lawmakers appreciate the vital mission that the courts perform.
That’s the message Chief Justice Charles Canady gave the Board of Governors during a January 29 virtual meeting that was originally scheduled for Tallahassee.
Justice Canady told board members that he was optimistic after recent meetings with House and Senate leaders, including the chairs of the appropriations committees that deal with court funding.
“I can tell you that across the board…I got a clear message that they understand and support the important work that Florida courts do,” he said. “I am so pleased with the support that we got, I believe these are all people that we can work with.”
However, he was quick to add, “that doesn’t mean we’re going to get everything we ask for.”
Board members were meeting a day after Gov. Ron DeSantis unveiled a $96.6 billion spending proposal for FY 2021-22 that calls for $4.3 billion more spending than the previous year, largely due to an infusion of federal health dollars.
Lawmakers are mulling spending cuts and possible tuition increases to offset a projected $2 billion revenue shortfall. Justice Canady said he was aware that lawmakers face difficult choices.
“I am very sympathetic to the challenges facing the members of the Legislature,” Justice Canady said. “I know that they have a tough job making the budget balance.”
Canady said that based on Trial Court Budget Commission estimates, the courts are asking lawmakers for $12.5 million to fund its Pandemic Response Plan and $3 million in COVID-19 response needs such as personal protective equipment and remote technology as “temporary adjudicative resources” to deal with a backlog of cases.
“When we get to things that are more like normal, there’s going to be a pile of work,” he said. “It’s a challenge that’s not going to be met in just six months.”
Canady also stressed the need to fund a new facility for the Second District Court of Appeal, an item he called “a grail issue.”
Lawmakers appropriated funding for the facility last year, but DeSantis withheld it until he could better gauge the pandemic’s impact on the economy and state revenues.
“We’re hoping that it will be funded again and make it through the whole process and will become a reality,” Justice Canady said, adding that “the clock is ticking” because the lease on a temporary facility is about to expire.
Justice Canady warned that the fight against COVID-19 is growing more complicated with the emergence of “VOCs,” or “variants of concern” that experts have deemed more contagious and vaccine-resistant.
“I think that is something we are going to be hearing more and more about in the coming weeks,” he said. “I need to say that we in our branch are still beleaguered by the pandemic, but we are pressing on.”
He praised lawyers and judges for “pivoting” rapidly to remote technology after the pandemic shuttered courthouses and forced the suspension of jury trials.
“As we look beyond the pandemic, I think we all are coming to understand more and more that the pandemic has truly been a transformative experience for our court system and the practice of law,” he said. “We have learned that there are a lot of things that can be done in the trial court more effectively and efficiently, that reduces the costs to litigants and the lawyers.”
Rule changes are under consideration “in relation to that,” Canady added.
In a brief question and answer period, board members thanked Canady for his leadership during the crisis. A few sought reassurances about the funding request and the eventual resumption of jury trials.
Board member Roland Sanchez-Medina, Jr., who represents the 11th Circuit, was skeptical that $15.5 million a year would be enough to handle the backlog of cases.
Canady said that was the best estimate, given the state of the economy.
“That number is the number that came out of the Trial Court Budget Commission,” he said. “Whenever we are making a request, we have to consider what’s possible.”
Young Lawyers Division President-elect Todd Baker told Canady that most of his members are too young to qualify for a vaccination priority list, yet they are the most vulnerable because many work as assistant public defenders and prosecutors.
“A lot of young lawyers are sort of the boots on the ground, and I hope that’s being taken into consideration when we consider resuming jury trials,” he said. “Is that being discussed?”
Justice Canady assured him that “we are following a prudent path.”
“We are proceeding cautiously, we are not going to do anything precipitously that is going to put anyone at risk,” he said.