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Court filings down; clerks and judges coping with COVID-19

Senior Editor Top Stories

“Jury selection is the exact opposite of social distancing”

Bay County Clerk of Court Bill KinsaulThe spread of COVID-19 and resulting local and statewide court administrative orders limiting in-person court proceedings have affected broader court activities.

As clerks and judges limit public contact and send staff to work at home — and law firms adopt similar strategies — figures for the court system’s statewide electronic filing portal show a significant decline in activity as the new coronavirus that causes the disease spreads in Florida.

Carolyn Weber, portal manager, said for the first two weeks of March, filings were actually up from a similar period in February, which is the normal trend in recent years. But for the next two weeks, filings dropped significantly.

For example, Palm Beach County saw 69,665 documents filed from February 18 through 29. For March 18-27 (a slightly shorter period), that declined to 46,772. Volusia County saw a reduction from 26,664 to 15,399, Hillsborough went from 87,199 to 54,878, and Duval County from 41,334 to 26,088. Smaller counties were similarly affected. Flagler went from 4,286 filed documents to 2,937, Washington County declined from 677 to 470, Jefferson County went from 419 to 195, and DeSoto from 1,300 to 809.

Even filings at the Supreme Court dipped from 253 to 188.

‘I don’t know what normal is these days’

It would seem to justify Bay County Clerk of Court Bill Kinsaul observation: “I don’t know what normal is these days.” Filings there were off about 30 percent.

There have been plenty of inquiries from attorneys and parties, he said, who want to ensure administrative orders delaying cases mean they don’t have to file additional paperwork — or won’t be arrested if they fail to appear for a now postponed court appearance.

Kinsaul’s office hadn’t fully recovered from the Great Recession when Hurricane Michael visited devastation upon Bay County in October 2018. His staff is still operating out of cramped quarters (a whole floor of the Panama City courthouse is closed for reconstruction), and now his office has imposed social distancing and eliminated virtually all contact with the public as part of the COVID-19 response.

“We’re stopping all the public at the [courthouse] front door. From that point they pass their documents through to employees or bailiffs. The employees disinfect them,” he said. “We’re operating more or less like a drive through.”

That is being repeated in courts and clerks’ offices across the state as the legal system adapts to the pandemic and statewide- and local-court administrative orders keep the justice system operating.

Chief Judge Michael McHughTwentieth Circuit Chief Judge Michael McHugh, answering questions from the News though Public Information Officer Sara Miles, gave a snapshot of how the courts are coping.

“The only proceedings taking place are those considered essential or critical [and are outlined in a court administrative order]. When possible, many of these essential court proceedings are being held remotely using videoconferencing, telephone, or other audio-video technology,” Miles said. “For hearings where people may be present in the courtroom, we have limited courtroom attendance to attorneys, parties, the media, and necessary witnesses. We are ensuring that anyone who is in our courthouse is maintaining at least a six-foot distance from each other and in groups of 10 or less, in accordance with CDC guidelines. All court employees who are able to work from home are doing so, in coordination with their supervisors.”

She said McHugh communicates with administrative judges via telephone and has taken steps to ensure the rural counties in the five-county circuit maintain access despite having fewer technology resources.

Since hurricane preparedness is part of court operations, Miles said courts were ready for a disaster, but “this situation is quite unique, since we still have electricity, but the response to public safety is much the same. As with any crisis, we anticipate a surge in certain types of cases [after the crisis] which we are prepared for.”

Professionalism

McHugh, through Miles, said a bright spot has been people working to keep the court system operating.

“The judiciary, staff, and other agencies all work together to overcome the hurdles that we are all facing,” Miles said. “All of our departments are working very hard to make the best of the situation. We can continue with essential court proceedings because we are prepared and willing to assist each other.”

Kinsaul, like several other clerks, echoed that sentiment.

“I can’t say enough about the clerks who work here. Professional doesn’t even summarize what they are,” he said. “They have handled all of this with great attitude and willingness to adjust to whatever we need. They have done abnormal things for a long, long time.”

Pinellas County Clerk of Court Ken BurkePinellas County Clerk of Court Ken Burke said responses will vary county to county depending on local needs, population, whether there are branch courthouses, and other factors.

He said his office has been able to handle electronic filings and many types of cases are proceeding normally. One anomaly, he said, was a spike in PIP filings. “I think some law firms that are slow on work said, ‘Well, let’s get those filed,” Burke said.

“Traffic citations are way down because law enforcement is busy with other things,” he continued. That, Burke added, will eventually be a financial problem for clerks who get a significant portion of their funding from traffic court revenues. Similarly, police arrests for misdemeanors also appear to be down, probably in reaction to already crowded jails, Burke said.

Tight Budgets

For people on payment plans for court fines, fees, and costs, he said payments have been extended if needed, and drivers licenses are not being suspended for lack of payment.

“There will be an intense effort when we get back to normal that those folks get back on the payment plan,” Burke said. As for the halt in license suspension for nonpayment, “we felt at this time it’s almost unconscionable to do that.”

Having clerk staff work from home has been difficult because of years of tight budgets, he said. “We have not invested as clerks in working at home, technology, and safeguards because we didn’t have the money. This is what happens when you have these budget cuts.”

Miami-Dade Clerk of Court Harvey Ruvin said he’s using skeleton crews to keep operations going and comply with the administrative orders on critical court operations. And other employees are working from home — including him.

“People are between 10% and 25% here. The remaining are. . . working from home,” he said.

Like Judge McHugh, Ruvin said he’s grateful for how his and other court employees are meeting the crisis

“I am absolutely proud and delighted and inspired by my staff, from the person in the file room all the way up to my senior deputies, who are all working unselfishly and synergistically. We have the people in place to deal with anything.”

Volusia County Clerk of Court Laura RothClerks said they are encouraging those with court or other business with clerks to use online access as much as possible. Volusia County Clerk of Court Laura Roth has an additional advantage — a walkup window at the Deland courthouse (the two branch courthouses in Daytona Beach have largely been closed).

“If they have to see us in person to get an injunction or a marriage license, we will do that at the walk-up window,” she said.

Roth also said she’s not surprised by the reduction in electronic filings.

“Attorneys can’t get jury trials and they’re not going to get any hearing dates, so that will slow down filings,” she said. “We think we’re going to be able to keep up with basic functions, with docketing. The judges are working and processing whatever they can that will not require in person hearings.”

That should mean when the crisis passes, paperwork should be up to date, but there will be backlogs in trials and most issues that require an in-person hearing or proceeding.

Technology

Tim SmithPutnam Clerk of Court Tim Smith also expects backlogs. “I think it will be in trials, hearings. . . the things where someone has to stand in front of a judge,” he said. “Jury selection is the exact opposite of social distancing.”

Like others, Smith has staff in the office for critical court functions while other employees work from home.

“We established a customer service center where everything that comes to us — either from our court duties or our board of county commission duties — comes through a central site,” he said, and employees, taking the appropriate precautions, still directly help the public.

Smith is in perhaps a unique position to appreciate how technology has made it possible for lawyers, clerks, judges, and others to work remotely to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. For several years, he has chaired the Florida Court E-Filing Authority, which oversees the court system’s statewide e-filing portal. The portal, which allows filings from anywhere with internet access, has continued to function, accepting documents from lawyers and other filers, despite limitations on in-person court activities and many people working at home.

“We fought hard and instituted all of these technology services over the last eight to 10 years. We did it mostly for convenience for our customers and the judiciary, but how valuable those serves have been shown to be,” Smith said. “Folks who moved that forward probably never envisioned how valuable this would be.”

Because of the portal and other technological upgrades, “You can still communicate with us relative to every aspect of what the clerk’s office does,” he added. “You can file through the portal, you can initiate a case, you can access court records, you can get certified court documents, you can request copies of official records; those can be e-certified and mailed to you.

“I appreciate we had folks who had vision and it proved so valuable today. I wish we were further along on folks who had remote access. I think that’s going to be the next step.”

Of course, some things may always require a human touch, and some clerks have continued to issue wedding licenses, with Smith and Kinsaul reporting an uptick in applications. Smith said he may be getting business from surrounding counties that have stopped issuing licenses, but Kinsaul, who also saw an uptick in passport applications, said he thinks people were anticipating perhaps there would be more restrictions on such routine activities soon.

And maybe there are some things not even COVID-19 can stop.

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