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Canady tells lawmakers the courts are preparing for the pandemic’s aftermath

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Chief Justice Charles Canady

Chief Justice Charles Canady

Judges, lawyers, and their judicial partners have worked diligently to respond to COVID-19, but a significant backlog of cases is looming, Chief Justice Charles Canady told lawmakers.

The chief justice and Clay County Court Clerk and Comptroller Tara Green, president the Florida Court Clerks and Comptrollers, delivered a pandemic update to a January 26 meeting of the House Judiciary Committee.

Justice Canady said that since March, the courts installed 1,700 Zoom licenses and conducted more than 400,000 videoconference hearings and other proceedings.

“Largely through remote proceedings, trial courts in Florida are on track to dispose of a projected 2.8 million cases in Fiscal Year 2020-21,” Canady said.

Canady stressed that a pandemic creates a unique health and safety challenge to the only branch of government that compels citizens to appear.

“You might say we offer people invitations that they cannot refuse,” he said.

A Supreme Court work group consisting of judges, lawyers, court clerks, and others is managing a recovery plan, and chief judges have the flexibility to resume operations based on regional conditions and the recommendations of health experts, Canady said.

But the pandemic has surged and receded, and recovery has been uneven, Justice Canady said.

“From the beginning of the pandemic, we have recognized the need to prepare for its aftermath,” he said. “We have tracked case filings and dispositions and projected what is to come.”

The chief justice referred to a Trial Court Budget Commission prediction that due to the pandemic, there will be 1.1 million more cases pending on July 1, 2021, than “would otherwise be pending.”

“We recognize that delays in jury trials require special focus and the three-year pandemic response plan proposed in our legislative budget requests contemplates the resource allocations necessary to address the backlog in jury trials, as well as other proceedings once the threat of COVID-19 has abated,” he said.

Not all the news is bad, Justice Canady said, noting that “there are positive outcomes to report.”

“Our response to the pandemic will forever change the way Florida’s courts operate,” he said. “Remote proceedings are here to stay.”

Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa and an attorney, said she was impressed.

“It does sound like Florida courts have done an amazing job managing all of this,” she said.

Rep. Michael Grieco, a Miami Democrat who is also an attorney, asked how remote proceedings will be implemented after the pandemic recedes.

“This is coming from somebody who loves remote hearings,” Grieco said.

Canady said procedural rules changes are under consideration.

“We can reduce costs to the litigants, we can reduce the burden on litigants,” Canady said. “For instance, in county court, we have litigants who previously might have had to take a half day off work, or even a day to go to court, and now they can participate through a remote proceeding. They avoid the loss of income they would have otherwise suffered….Where we can do it remotely and reduce the burden on lawyers and litigants by the use of remote technology, I believe we’ll be committed to doing that.”

Green told the committee that court clerks have also worked hard to maintain services, despite a dramatic reduction in court fines and fees that resulted in a 50% revenue reduction in the fourth quarter that forced layoffs.

“We also had a simultaneous challenge on our resources,” she said. “We operate on a cash basis…and we have no authority to have reserves.”

Clerks installed drop boxes in their lobbies to collect fines, fees, and court filings, and switched to videoconferencing when it was available, Green said. Some employees who live in rural areas lack digital access to work from home, she said.

Clerks have also been creative, she said, recounting how a drive-through wedding ceremony in Alachua County received a write up in the Washington Post. Other clerks are establishing queues to manage traffic.

Clerks have used remote technology to continue “Operation Green Light” operations that help motorists restore their driving privileges, Green said.

Green said clerks will ask lawmakers for statutory changes that would allow them to gradually build up a 16% reserve.

“We see this as an opportunity to work with you,” she said.

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