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Jax Daily Record Tuesday, Sep. 19, 201707:00 AM EST

Courthouse reopens, faces backlog

‘We’re going to have to be flexible and understanding,’ chief judge says after 10-day storm shutdown.
by: Max Marbut Associate Editor

The Duval County Courthouse opened Monday morning after being closed for 10 days to allow the people who work in the building to prepare for Hurricane Irma and then recover from the effects of the storm.

The building sustained no damage, other than a minor leak in the pedestrian bridge that connects it with the State Attorney’s Office across Pearl Street.

“Everybody came back to work eagerly and all the computers and the IT system came back up. We picked up where we left off,” said Court Administrator Joe Stelma.

Picking up where they left off will be complicated for those who work in the courtrooms. During the six business days the courthouse was closed, myriad trials and hearings weren’t held and therefore will have to be rescheduled.

Family Court Services, the office that each month helps about 1,500 people who aren’t represented by an attorney navigate the family law legal system, will be dealing with a backlog.

So will the Clerk of Courts, which will be catching up on more than a week of documents that must be filed and recorded but could not be because the building was closed.

“We’re going to have to be flexible and understanding,” said 4th Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Mark Mahon.

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga ordered all courts in the state to be closed Sept. 8 and 11 to allow court staff to prepare for the storm and then ride it out as it pummeled the state from the Keys to Northeast Florida.

Mahon said after Irma had passed through Duval County, it was obvious that many people would need a few days to recover from the storm, including cleaning up debris, repairing damage to their homes and living without electricity in their homes.

The court isn’t like other businesses that were able to return to operation within a day or two, Mahon said. The entire system including judges, bailiffs, attorneys, court reporters, jurors, trial witnesses and support staff has to be available and in place to ensure due process under the law.

That wasn’t possible immediately after the storm and then Duval County Public Schools made the decision to remain closed through Friday.

“You’ve got to err on the side of caution. You can’t expect someone to be here and leave their children at home. There’s no emergency day care,” Mahon said.

Getting the court calendar rescheduled is complex and getting caught up is “going to take some time,” Mahon said.

There are more than 2,000 felony criminal cases pending before the court, an equal number of probate and trust actions and about 1,000 post-conviction motions.

On the county court side, pending criminal misdemeanors, landlord/tenant actions, traffic court, civil disputes under $15,000 and small claims court also will have to be rescheduled.

“We are unburying all that. We’ll be back to normal in a couple of weeks,” Mahon said.

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