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Courts ask for $16 million to clear pandemic backlog

Senior Editor News in Photos

Judge Margaret SteinbeckThe Florida court system is asking lawmakers for $16 million this year to handle increased workloads associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, most of that to begin dealing with a 990,000-case backlog.

Twentieth Circuit Judge Margaret Steinbeck, chair of the Trial Court Budget Commission, stressed that the courts worked diligently, with the help of remote technology and protective measures, to dispose of 2.5 million cases this year.

“I’m really proud to be part of this judicial system at this moment in time,” she said. “We’ve had great leadership, and my colleagues have been very creative and flexible and proactive in adapting court operations.”

But more resources will be needed, Judge Steinbeck said.

“Of course, we’re facing incredible pressures on state resources and I don’t envy the position that the legislators are going to be in,” she said. “But we have to tell them what we need to keep the courts running.”

The Trial Court Budget Commission’s legislative budget request includes $12.5 million for the 2021-2022 budget year — including nearly $6 million for general magistrates, program specialists, and staff attorneys and another $6 million for senior judges.

The case backlog is estimated to be 990,074 when the fiscal year begins July 1. Over the next three years, the courts estimate they will require $37 million and some 300 judicial or quasi-judicial positions to deal with the fallout from the pandemic.

Eleventh Circuit Chief Judge Bertila Soto, a member of the Trial Court Budget Commission’s executive committee, says the budget request is based largely on Florida’s experience with the foreclosure crisis of a decade ago.

“It’s a conscientious and conservative estimate that reflects the importance of the work that we continue to do,” she said. “We hit the ground running in April and never looked back. In Miami-Dade, we did more than 160,000 hearings, which is pretty amazing based on what’s been happening with COVID.”

The pandemic’s economic fallout will generate far more than business disputes, Judge Steinbeck said.

“People tend to think of it in terms of the financial litigation, but there’s also increases in family cases, which includes juvenile dependency, juvenile delinquency, and domestic relations and domestic violence, and we anticipate that there will be an uptick in those as families feel the pressures,” she said.

Judge Soto agrees.

“We know that crime usually rises when economics are bad,” she said. “As opposed to the foreclosure crisis when we were limited to housing cases, I think the pandemic is going to really across the board affect the new types of cases.”

Twentieth Circuit Chief Judge Michael McHugh, who serves on the Supreme Court’s COVID-19 Workgroup, warned that a state budget shortfall will complicate pandemic recovery efforts.

“We’re kind of dealing with a double whammy right now,” he told an October 19 meeting of the Bar’s COVID-19 Pandemic Recovery Task Force. “So, at the same time we are asked by our Legislature to figure out 8 to 10% reductions in our budget based on the estimated tax revenue that’s coming in, we’re also trying to deal with a backlog that is very real.”

The Trial Court Budget Commission estimates that more than 1,180 trials were put on hold between March and June after courthouses were closed to the public. By June 30, 2021, when the current fiscal year ends, nearly 5,000 jury trials will be delayed, according to the commission.

Much of the delay can be attributed to the pandemic, and the need for social distancing.

Judge McHugh noted that a courthouse waiting room in the 20th Circuit normally accommodates 375 prospective jurors, but only 75 when reconfigured for social distancing.

Before the pandemic struck, the Supreme Court certified the need for 10 new trial court judgeships. Lawmakers appropriated $3.4 million to add six county court judges and four new circuit judge positions, but Gov. Ron DeSantis withheld the money in anticipation of a budget shortfall.

The courts aren’t the only judicial partners dealing with budget challenges.

Earlier this summer, court clerks were forced to lay off or furlough workers and reduce service hours after revenue from court fines plummeted.

Nineteenth Circuit State Attorney Phil Archer said state budget reductions have forced him to freeze or lay off 17 positions, and more cuts may be necessary by the end of the calendar year.

“Ninety-seven percent of my budget is salary, it’s all people,” he said.

The budget request comes as jury trials, almost exclusively for criminal cases, are resuming across Florida. However, some judges are scheduling civil jury trials on a standby basis, should a criminal trial cancel.

Chief Justice Canady recently extended a five-circuit, remote civil jury pilot program. Surveys show that lawyers and jurors who participated in trails in the 11th and Fourth circuits were mostly pleased with the results.

But remote civil jury pilot programs in the 20th and Ninth circuits have yet to recruit willing parties.

The Bar’s COVID-19 Pandemic Recovery Task Force recently commissioned the Trial Lawyers Section to recommend strategies for dealing with the backlog. The white paper recommended an increased use of senior judges, the temporary reassignment of county court judges to serve as circuit judges, and the potential appointment of special “trial masters” or prominent attorneys serving as “private judges.”

Judge McHugh told the task force that the workgroup anticipates that senior judges will be available in most circuits, and that county court judges will have to be temporarily assigned to serve as circuit judges. But he said the courts lack authority to appoint trial masters to hear cases if parties don’t agree.

The courts will require additional resources, but Judge Soto stresses that the judicial system is not in crisis.

“This will be a new normal, based on what the epidemiologists are telling us, for some time now, and we need to proceed with business, and the courts have done that,” she said. “This isn’t just about someone falling in [a store], which is an important issue. It’s also about how we live and the laws that we follow.”

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