Lawmakers briefed on court system pandemic recovery plans
Florida courts are balancing safety and efficiency as they implement a pandemic recovery plan, Ninth Circuit Chief Judge Lisa Munyon told the House Judiciary Committee.
“Going forward we recognize that the pandemic may be with us for quite some time,” Judge Munyon told the committee at an October 12 meeting. “However, we know that this cannot slow the operation of the courts.”
Judge Munyon chairs the Supreme Court’s COVID-19 Workgroup that is charged with developing a pandemic response. She appeared with representatives of Florida’s court clerks, prosecutors and public defenders for what the committee billed as a discussion about the “status of the judicial system.”
Judge Munyon told the committee that the court’s pandemic response has been necessarily “measured and thoughtful.”
“I feel that this is really important to know the judicial branch is in a very unique position,” she said. “Citizens are summonsed to come to the courthouse, for jury duty, almost 2 million per year.”
Others are compelled to appear before the court or risk warrants, fines, contempt of court, or adverse rulings, Judge Munyon said.
“Chief Justice Canady established the workgroup to advise him on the practices and protocols needed to ensure that the court system was operating to the fullest extent possible, while protecting citizens, judges and staff,” she said.
Judge Munyon praised lawmakers for funding the first year of the court system’s pandemic recovery plan.
“We’re using this funding to hire temporary adjudicatory and case management resources, which will allow us to enlist senior judges and hire OPS general magistrates and case managers to help with the caseload,” she said.
Committee Chair Erin Grall, R-Vero Beach and an attorney, said she was concerned with statistics that show the number of circuit civil jury trials fell from 731 the year before the pandemic to 268 in 2021. Circuit criminal jury trials declined from 2,600 to 943 during the same period, Grall said.
“I really want to have a better understanding with what’s happening right now with court operations,” Grall said. “What do the coming months look like?”
Tenth Circuit Public Defender Rex Dimmig, president of the Florida Public Defender Association, said the suspension of jury trials threatened the rights of defendants and victims alike.
Jail and prison transports were halted at the beginning of the pandemic, and defense attorneys have struggled to meet confidentially with incarcerated clients, Dimmig said.
“Like with all constitutional rights, there has to be a balancing, and the balancing was off,” he said. “The county jails became the warehouse, if you will, for a lot of people who didn’t need to be there.”
Twelfth Judicial Circuit State Attorney Ed Brodsky, president of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, said the state is facing an additional 25,000 felony cases this year.
Many of the temporary measures Chief Justice Canady implemented, such as the remote administration of oaths, and greater use of remote proceedings, have helped speed the resolution of cases, Brodsky said.
He urged lawmakers to consider making many of them permanent, including allowing judges to preside over the first appearance of a suspect whose charges originate in another judicial circuit.
Brodsky warned, however, that increasing the number of senior judges and magistrates will put more pressure on front line prosecutors and public defenders.
Individual caseloads have risen 25% in his office, Brodsky said.
“You’re straining public defenders, you’re straining assistant state attorneys, they’re overwhelmed,” he said.
Prosecutors should consider diverting more defendants to treatment courts whenever appropriate, Brodsky said.
Masking mandates have forced continuances in criminal cases where the identity of the defendant is an issue, he said.
Flagler County Court Clerk and Comptroller Tom Bexley, who represented the Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers, thanked lawmakers for passing legislation earlier this year that helped stabilize their budgets. Court clerks faced a revenue crisis at the beginning of the pandemic due, in large part, to a dramatic reduction in court fines and fees.
“It should also be noted that we have faced staffing issues,” he said. “Many of us had to furlough or lay off workers due to budget shortfalls.”
Jury summons response rates plummeted in some regions due to the pandemic, he said.
Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, asked Bexley if lawmakers should consider a different revenue source for court clerks.
“Hasn’t this pandemic highlighted the challenges that we have with our current model of funding the clerk of courts?”
Other lawmakers asked if the court clerks would benefit from increasing court fees.
But Bexley said the solution is more complicated because of the way fines and fees are distributed between different “judicial partners.”
“We will certainly work within the confines that we have, but I would certainly like to do more for the people,” he said.