Almost two million court cases were pending across Florida in June of 2020, a nearly 30% increase from the same time in 2019, according to the Florida State Courts Annual Report. The 8th Judicial Circuit Court, which covers North Central Florida, is projected to work through its backlogs by next year.
Trial Court Administrator Paul Silverman manages the trial court’s day-to-day operations for the 8th Judicial Circuit. He’s steered courts across the circuit’s six counties through the pandemic and anticipates working through the increased pending jury trials by June.
The 8th Judicial Circuit includes Alachua, Baker, Bradford, Gilchrist, Levy and Union counties.
What follows is edited for length and clarity:
Q: How did your circuit handle changing court procedures in response to the pandemic?
A: Our circuit handled the backlog pretty well. Within the first two weeks of receiving the order from the Supreme Court, which limited in-person court events, we were able to put together video format to do almost all our court events. It took some training, and it took some time to put that together, but within about two to three weeks, I would say we were doing about 90% of our court events remotely by video.
It was a heavy lift to do that. It does take longer because people have connectivity issues and there are some difficulties with the technology and people are on mute. Various problems, but the judges worked hard, and they managed it.
We are up to date with most of our cases, except for court events that require juries. That was one thing that you could not do remotely. For about six months, we were not able to do any criminal trials at all. For about a year, we were not able to do any civil jury trials. As we sit now, our largest backlog is in those jury trial cases.
Q: Why do you think the 8th Judicial Circuit is doing well compared to other places in keeping up with the backlog?
A: I can’t really say as to others, but I can tell you what we have done. We acted very quickly getting the video capability up and running. We already had Zoom before the pandemic. We were fortunate we already had the platform ready — we just needed to expand it. We’ve also had buy-in from our judges and our lawyers that were willing to do it.
The direction from our chief judge was you need to continue to handle your cases but handle them in a way that everybody’s safe. If that is to do it remotely, then that’s how it needs to be done. It’s not always the best approach having cases done remotely. There’s value to people being there. But in the current situation that we were in, the option was just not do it at all or do it remotely.
I think that there was some pushback initially, just because anything we do often results in pushback. But I think ultimately people appreciate it. They were able to get hearings and get resolutions. We’re talking about family law cases, which never involve a jury, so a judge could proceed with handling it remotely. People need resolution in those cases—it’s custody of a child visitation, child support, things like that really needed to be done.
I’m proud of our staff and our judges and the local lawyers that bought in and agreed that we needed to get these things done.
This chart depicts the clearance rates between the 8th Judicial Circuit Court and the state median. (Data source: Florida Courts Clearance Rate Dashboard) Q: What steps will be taken moving forward with the resurgence with COVID-19 cases?
A: We thought we had it all figured out. And then of course, COVID-19 came back up. We’re catching up more quickly in the criminal area. We’ve been doing jury trials since September and just applying a lot of safety measures. Normally, we would bring in a large number of people and crowd them all together. Now, we bring them in and see where people are in each room, and we separate the jurors. They wear masks.
When the jurors receive a summons, we give them the opportunity to opt out if they’re not comfortable coming in and being there with a large group of people. They can also postpone their jury service.
In the civil area, it’s been a little bit tougher. Those tend to be longer trials, just by nature. Criminal trials are often a day or two. Civil jury trials might be a week or even longer. We’ve reassigned judges from family law and other to do more civil trials.
Q: Besides the pandemic, are there other factors contributing to the backlog?
A: I would say not. The state and the legislature have been really good about giving us resources. We’ve been able to get new positions to help with managing the cases and getting them ready for trial. It’s just that backlog that developed during that period.
As of right now, we’re back pretty much to full speed as far as the number of trials that we’re doing. We just had to make up that year where we were doing hardly any. I anticipate that by next summer, maybe June 30 of next year, we’re hoping to have that backlog caught up.
Q: How has the public responded to the way the courts you oversee have been operating?
A: I would say our overriding mantra has been that we need to resolve cases, but in a way that can be done safely. That’s the approach that we’ve taken since day one. That’s been a challenge, there’s no question about it.
It’s difficult because there are just as many people on one side, that feel that we’re using too many safety measures and limiting the court too much. There are equal numbers on the other side that feel like we’re not doing enough safety measures. As you no doubt know, it’s become a politically charged discussion, so we’ve tried our best to strike that balance between moving forward and making sure people are safe.