State Courts Learning A Lot In Push For Federal COVID Funds

Many state courts have had surprising success accessing federal pandemic relief funds to help reduce case backlogs, court leaders say, but with none of that money earmarked for judiciaries, courts have had to be assertive about asking for it.

And that may be a useful lesson.

The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act, passed in March 2021, included $195.3 billion in financial aid for states, according to the U.S. Department of the Treasury. But none of those funds were specifically set aside for state courts, which are hoping to use the money to chip away at daunting case backlogs left over from pandemic court closures.

So courts have had to be more insistent than usual about asking for their cut.

"Courts were in a sense having to request that money — or beg for that money — from governors' offices or legislators," said David Slayton, vice president of court consulting services for the National Center for State Courts.

Those efforts have yielded results.

Of 32 state court systems that responded to a survey conducted by the NCSC, 25 reported that they had managed to tap into federal relief funds that total $95.3 million, with the "big buckets" of that money being ARPA and the earlier Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act, Slayton said.

Most of that money is now being put toward hiring new staff and opening additional courtrooms, court administrators say.

The $14.6 million in ARPA funds Milwaukee County courts were allocated by Wisconsin's governor will pay for five new courts, according to Wisconsin First Judicial District Chief Judge Mary E. Triggiano.

Three felony courts, one domestic violence court and one misdemeanor court will help tackle a backlog that includes about 1,665 felony cases, said Judge Triggiano, who added that her courts also received $1.25 million in ARPA money from the county.

The money will pay for the hiring of deputy court clerks and clerical staff, case managers for pretrial services, assistant district attorneys, public defenders and other staff necessary to operate the new courtrooms, Judge Triggiano said.

"We weren't shy to ask for a significant amount of money because we knew that was what it was going to take," she said.

The $3 million in ARPA funds Bexar County, Texas, courts were granted will be used to dig into a bottleneck of about 5,000 domestic violence cases, according to county Director of Judicial Services Mike Lozito.

Lozito turned two large conference rooms into courtrooms and staffed them with visiting judges, he said. Bringing the courtrooms online also meant hiring a court reporter, bailiff, clerk and court coordinator, as well as buying furniture and equipment.

"We tried to look at a full array of things," Lozito said. "It may not have covered everything that probably would be needed, but it covered a majority."

Georgia's Augusta Judicial Circuit has budgeted the $2 million in ARPA funds it was allocated to hire assistant district attorneys, a clerk, court reporters, deputy sheriffs, courtroom interpreters and a juvenile court judge, according to Circuit Court Administrator Nolan Martin.

The funds will also pay for the senior judges now handling some civil disputes so that active judges can tackle a backlog of around 3,400 pending felony cases, Martin said.

Courts have already made headway resolving those waiting cases.

Bexar County's two new courts have tackled about 75% of the 2,500 cases assigned to them; Lozito said he hopes to work through his backlog by mid-June.

Since applying for ARPA funding, Martin's courts have handled 200 cases from their original backlog of 3,600, he said.

Minnesota courts have reduced their inventory of major criminal cases awaiting resolution by 22% since its judicial districts received $10 million each to employ senior judges, part-time judicial officers and temporary staff, according to Jeff Shorba, the Minnesota Judicial Branch's state court administrator.

But it's those courts' success in winning the federal funding that is really unusual, according to Slayton, a former administrative director of Texas' Office of Court Administration.

"Courts have tried for years to access federal funds through state governments, and while some have been successful, it has generally been very difficult," he said. "Several states had much better success during the pandemic."

None of those relief funds were actually earmarked for state courts, however, according to court administrators. It was all given to governors or state legislatures to be allocated as they saw fit.

So that's where the courts had to go to get it.

In Milwaukee, Judge Triggiano put together "an unprecedented consortium" that included representatives from the city and county as well as the local district attorney, lead public defender, sheriff and "everybody who's anybody in the criminal justice system," she said.

That group submitted its proposal for the funding directly to the governor.

The Augusta Judicial Circuit applied to an ad hoc committee of the Judicial Council of Georgia, but the grants had to be approved by the Governor's Office of Planning and Budget, Martin said.

The Utah state judiciary's $15 million of ARPA funds — largely to be used for technology upgrades — had to be appropriated by the state legislature, according to state court Administrator Ron Gordon.

Whatcom County, Washington, Superior Court teamed up with the county's district court, prosecuting attorney and public defenders' office to submit a joint proposal for funding to the county executive and county council, according to Superior Court Clerk David Reynolds. Those courts eventually won the money to hire an additional judicial officer, judicial assistant and court clerk.

Being forced to build these alliances and go to their respective executive and legislative branches for funds could be a blessing in disguise for courts, said Erika Rickard, who leads The Pew Charitable Trusts' civil legal system modernization project.

That experience could make courts more open to and practiced at applying for non-pandemic-related funding in the future, Rickard said. It could also make judiciaries more aware of other sources of funding that have always been available to courts.

"We're seeing an increase in the range of funding that courts can apply for, but also an increase in appetite among courts for applying for new and preexisting funds," Rickard said.

That increased appetite for chasing government funding may come in handy after the pandemic backlogs ease.

That's because much of the pandemic relief money is only temporary. And some states that did allocate funding to their courts limited its use to dealing directly with pandemic-fueled backlogs, not to address longer-term issues.

The funding the Augusta Judicial Circuit was granted, for instance, was strictly limited to paying for personnel and some administrative costs related to reducing the backlog, according to Martin.

He had also hoped to fund technology projects he says are important to modernize his courts, like data integration between the different case management systems used by the courts, the district attorney's office and the public defender. But the money for those projects was not approved.

The money that was approved is only budgeted for one year, Martin said. Judge Triggiano said the money for her additional courts will last only two years.

"That's it," Judge Triggiano said. "Reduce the backlog, or if you don't, these courts are going to go away."

Whether that money will be enough to reduce the backlogs courts face remains to be seen, say court leaders, who seem pessimistic about the possibility of receiving more.

Only 12 state judiciaries surveyed by the NCSC responded that they were expecting to receive additional pandemic-related funding in the future, Slayton said.

"Even in the states that have done really well with getting funding, it might not be enough," Slayton said.

And even if the money is enough to help courts dig out from under current case backlogs, it won't be enough to address longer-term issues, court leaders agree.

Those issues include outdated technology, poor public defender and private defense attorney pay, and dealing with the mental health and substance abuse problems prevalent among the people cycling their way through the courts.

"Even before the pandemic, there are pieces of the criminal justice system that have never been funded to do the job we need to do," Judge Triggiano said.

So courts will continue having to apply the lessons they learned accessing federal pandemic relief funds to chase the funding to tackle those bigger problems.

Rickard said she sees this necessity as an asset.

"It's both an opportunity for courts to actively seek out additional funding opportunities, but also for their state and local partners to recognize the role that the courts play," she said.

Judge Triggiano said she put together her consortium of criminal justice partners to do exactly that.

She plans for the group to continue advocating for more financial support for the courts and the criminal justice system, she said.

"What our hope is, is that if we can really crank out and reduce the backlog, we can say, 'See, look, this is working, these additional courts, these additional bodies,'" Judge Triggiano said. "'Please help us to continue funding this.'"

--Editing by Brian Baresch.


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