Panhandle courts still recovering from Hurricane Michael
‘It’s been a burden. But we’re going to get through it’
Nearly five months after Hurricane Michael leveled entire towns along the “Forgotten Coast,” the wheels of justice in the 14th Judicial Circuit are turning again.
From his office in a heavily damaged Bay County Courthouse in Panama City, Chief Judge Elijah Smiley praises court personnel for overcoming everything from homelessness to cramped portables to continue their public service.
“It’s been a burden,” Judge Smiley says. “But we’re going to get through it.”
Michael came ashore October 10 packing 155 mph winds, the strongest ever recorded in the Panhandle. The storm claimed more than 40 lives and caused more than $25 billion in property damage.
The good news is that no court personnel in the 14th Circuit were killed or seriously injured, Smiley said.
The bad news is that courthouses, judicial administrative complexes, and the fiber optic networks that serve them, were destroyed or heavily damaged.
“We cover six counties and we took a significant hit,” Smiley said. “It impacted our physical facilities substantially, it impacted our court staff and judges, it impacted our technology infrastructure, and it impacted our justice partners — lawyers, state attorneys, public defenders and the Department of Juvenile Justice.”
Smiley’s home suffered roof damage but remains habitable. He considers himself lucky.
“I’ve had two judges who have essentially lost homes,” Smiley said. “And then I have staff people who have had to relocate because their home or apartment has been essentially destroyed. When they have that kind of damage, it’s difficult for them to focus in on what they’ve got to do here.”
One staff attorney was forced to leave because the hurricane destroyed his $800-a-month apartment, and the only replacement housing he could find cost twice as much, Smiley said.
All trials in the 14th Circuit were suspended for the remainder of 2018 after the October hurricane to allow residents to get back on their feet, Smiley said.
“What we were concerned about was that the community as a whole was in shock,” Smiley said. “I mean . . . the hospital had just laid off 600 people, the mall is down, and schools were closed. We didn’t want to call in jurors when people didn’t have homes. That would not be a top priority for them.”
Smiley can recall only a couple of defense demands for speedy trial, and they were resolved.
“We worked hard to make sure due process rights were afforded,” he said.
The 14th Circuit lost access to a portion of the Bay County Courthouse, a Bay County administrative building, and a juvenile courthouse, Smiley said. Computer equipment was destroyed and so was a fiber optic network that connected courtrooms to the jail, Smiley said.
The Bay County Courthouse, a 1915 structure, has a unique history as the place where Clarence Earl Gideon was forced to defend himself against charges related to a local pool hall burglary in 1961. The case resulted in the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Gideon v Wainwright, that granted criminal defendants broader access to public defenders.
Post-Hurricane Michael, court personnel and county judges are working out of portables parked behind the damaged structure, Smiley said.
“I’ve got them all in mobile homes where it’s a group setting and they don’t have any privacy to talk on the phone,” Smiley said. “They don’t have conference rooms, they have to walk from the trailer in the rain to come inside the courthouse, and they don’t know where they are going to have hearings from day to day.”
Judges still took turns in November bringing in hot meals for court staff, Smiley said.
In another corner of the circuit, the Jackson County Courthouse in Marianna was also heavily damaged, Smiley said. Some court proceedings in Jackson County are being held in an agricultural complex, Smiley said.
Exact damage estimates for the 14th Judicial Circuit were not available. Cost-sharing between state and local governments makes the effort complicated.
But court administrators are counting heavily on a $1.6 million state budget request to repair the Jackson County Courthouse. It’s one of a handful of spending items that make up a $387 million storm recovery package filed by Rep. Jay Trumbull, a Panama City Republican.
Even if the Legislature and the governor approve the request, Smiley estimates it could be a year before the court facilities are completely back up and running.
“We view this as an opportunity to prove that we can get better,” Smiley said. “We’re going to look back on it in a couple of years and we’re going to wonder how we did it — the court system is going to perform its role, and I’m going to make sure of it. Period.”