The Judicial Branch faces a backlog of trials and the looming threat of another wave of the coronavirus pandemic, but it has been unable to obtain a $218,000 grant from the Executive Branch to stand up a remote calling system for employees to assist the public.
Chief Court Administrator Patrick Carroll III told the Appropriations Committee at an informational hearing Monday that the branch, which provides all court and juvenile detention functions throughout the state, has racked up $4.3 million in expenses linked to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The branch has received $1.2 million in funding from the state, Carroll said. But it is unclear if the agency will be expected to absorb the rest of the cost of dealing with the pandemic. The branch had no choice but to spend the money to serve the public and keep employees safe, Carroll said.
“We’re looking for $3.1million in reimbursement” from coronavirus relief funds, said Melissa Farley, director of External Affairs for the agency.
The agency also is seeking money to implement new ways of allowing the public access to the court information centers which were providing in-person help to people who needed forms or court documents, Carrol said.
But it will be difficult to explore new ways of opening information centers without funding. The Judicial Branch requested a grant from the federal CARES Act funds the state received. Thus far, the Office of Police and Management has declined to award the branch the $218,000 it requested.
“It’s very troubling,” Carroll told committee members. “I assume you have no input on how the funds are being distributed.”
“That’s amazing to me when we have $1.4 billion in the state,” said committee Co-Chair Toni Walker, D-New Haven.
Gov. Ned Lamont later said that the Judicial Branch may be eligible to receive a portion of the $1.4 billion. At his daily briefing, Lamont said he and OPM Secretary Melissa McCaw will be making decisions about disbursing money soon.
The committee has been hosting information sessions with various state agencies to get a sense of how the pandemic has impacted their budgets.
The fallout from the public health crisis continues to reverberate in courthouses throughout the state as the agency works to move functions to remote processes to help alleviate massive backlogs. As of this week, the agency will have 53 of 72 courthouses and office buildings open. By the end of March, it had shut down all but six courthouses, two juvenile court locations and the State Supreme and Appellate Courts, and those were only open three days a week.
There are areas that won’t be easily resolved, Carroll said.
Jury trials are unlikely to resume before September and even then, a single case might require three separate courtrooms to properly allow jurors to social distance, he said. Many of the jury deliberation rooms are small and outdated and don’t have state-of-the-art ventilation systems, Carroll said. Trials will be “very space demanding” but unless a vaccine comes through quickly, the agency is required to protect potential jurors – and it will take time to figure out how to do that.
Meanwhile, it’s likely that many court functions that have been taking place virtually will not go back to in-person proceedings, Carroll said.
“Many of the procedures that were implemented have disclosed areas where we can make great efficiencies and great measures of convenience for our stakeholders,” Carroll said.
In total, the branch has completed 15,000 court appearances remotely and another 10,000 short calendar civil decisions remotely since late March, Carroll said.
Judges are now handling probable cause findings and approving warrants remotely, he said. The branch has worked with the state Department of Correction to use video conferencing to provide court dates that have allowed the release of some inmates who were eligible, Carroll said.
At present, the Judicial Branch has posted a 4.8% increase in the number of pending civil cases, a 15.8% increase in pending family cases, a 27.9% increase in pending criminal cases and a 6% increase in pending juvenile cases since most of the courthouses closed.