A few weeks ago, rumors started in the empty halls of the Tampa, Florida, courthouse that there likely would not be any civil jury trials during the entire year of 2021. Later that same week, a judge in Miami, Florida, told me that my case, pending since mid-2019, would be tried before a jury in 3–4 years. Criminal trials have just started, barely, and, that same week in Pinellas County, Florida, the county’s public defender sought to delay the start of criminal jury trials, citing public health concerns, as COVID-19 infections across the country continued to increase. He was unsuccessful.
The wheels of justice have always turned slowly in the state court system, but the pandemic has brought those wheels to an almost screeching halt. In some states, such as Florida, parties have been filing electronically for years, and the closing of the physical courthouse or clerk’s office did not have a significant impact on the ability to move cases forward. Indeed, the courts almost seamlessly transitioned to virtual or telephonic proceedings. In fact, many of the civil judges seemed to have more time than ever before, at the beginning. Where the problem is about to occur, or is occurring, is when the courts attempt to get through the backlog of criminal jury trials, to which the civil judges likely will be asked to devote their time, leaving little time for civil hearings, bench trials, or civil jury trials. Further, when they do occur, certain types of civil trials, such as personal injury cases, will take precedence over civil business disputes. In those states without e-filing, the backlog is likely to be much more significant as filings and hearings on key issues may be delayed.