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Tampa federal courts' caseload drops with threat

The threat of an accelerated trial calendar has forced more than 1,000 civil lawsuits to drop from the heavy caseload facing Tampa's federal courts.

Fewer than 240 cases remain from the 1,500 originally targeted for the so-called "rocket docket."

The unusual plan, announced by Chief U.S. District Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich last year, involves bringing all six federal district judges from Orlando and Jacksonville to Tampa for three months, starting June 1.

The judges will assist Tampa's five district judges in a marathon effort to reduce the Tampa division's caseload _ one of the heavier ones in the country.

Despite the success in clearing away a large number of cases, and the prospect that the number of remaining trials could drop below 200, Judge Kovachevich said Tuesday that plans for the accelerated trial calendar are still on.

The reduction in cases so far has been an enormous success, Kovachevich said. They were resolved either through settlement or dismissal.

The remaining cases, though, "are not going to go away," Kovachevich said. The pace of new case filings has not decreased either, she said.

Some lawyers applaud the accelerated trial calendar for making the local justice system work more smoothly. Others, however, privately voice concerns that the burden of preparing for multiple trials at the same time might compromise the interests of clients.

Judge Kovachevich dismissed that suggestion, saying there was plenty of notice about the new calendar.

"People would like to have what they want when they want it," Kovachevich said.

"The world isn't that way. I am sure people who are litigants want their cases heard promptly. The simple math is that we need more judges. And we aren't getting them now."

Kovachevich described what she terms a judicial emergency, with the Middle District of Florida's caseload one of the most burdensome in the nation.

The Middle District stretches from Jacksonville to Fort Myers and includes Orlando and Tampa.

Leaders of the Tampa Bay chapter of the Federal Bar Association agree with Kovachevich.

"Those who practice civil federal law in the long-run are going to be greatly pleased that a great many cases have now been worked through the system," said Stuart Markman, the association's president.

Although some statistical calculations show that the Middle District could justify 11 additional judges, legislation now before Congress authorizes only four more.

"I think that's pretty amazing," Markman said.

Not all attorneys agree with the wisdom of the accelerated calendar, though _ particularly those lawyers who specialize in the types of civil actions that pop up frequently in federal dockets. They include lawsuits accusing employers of discriminating on the basis of race, gender, age, disability or family status.

Robert Eschenfelder, an assistant St. Petersburg city attorney who handles such lawsuits filed against St. Petersburg, recently found himself preparing for six trials this summer.

"I don't think that serves the interests of justice," Eschenfelder said. "Part of my obligation is to thoughtfully prepare for each case."

In a footnote to one written motion in a case, Eschenfelder noted the city's objection to the accelerated trial calendar on constitutional due process grounds.

As it turned out, five of Eschenfelder's six trials went away, including the one with his footnote. The cases were either dismissed or settled. Eschenfelder said the timing of the trial calendar was a factor in the settlement decisions.

Judge Kovachevich said the handling of the caseload so far has been in the best interests of all the citizens of central Florida.

"We are knocking ourselves out to serve the public," Kovachevich said. "We want Congress to do its duty. . . . We really need help."