TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) — Trying to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady issued orders in March that suspended jury trials and other proceedings at courthouses across the state.

But more than six months later, a North Florida appeals court is confronted with two cases about whether delays in prosecutors filing charges violated the rights of criminal defendants.

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The cases, filed this month at the 1st District Court of Appeal, are rooted in the rights of defendants to speedy trials. They also center on a rule that says criminal defendants will be brought to trial within 175 days of arrest if they are charged with felonies.

Judges in Alachua and Clay counties, however, came to different conclusions about how the speedy-trial requirements should have been applied in the two cases, as the court system worked under Canady’s orders.

Alachua County Circuit Judge James Colaw on Aug. 28 issued a decision siding with defendant Brandy Lee Johnson, who was arrested Feb. 3 and accused of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon.

As of Aug. 26, prosecutors had not formally charged Johnson through an indictment or what is known as an “information.” That period was longer than the 175-day window to hold a speedy trial.

In his 10-page decision, Colaw wrote that prosecutors contended the time requirement to “formally charge Defendant has been continuously suspended by the Florida Supreme Court” starting with an administrative order issued by Canady on March 13. But Colaw ruled that the case against Johnson should be “discharged” because, while Canady’s orders addressed a suspension of speedy-trial procedures, they did not allow a delay in filing formal charges.

“(It) is clear that the Florida Supreme Court’s intent is to suspend the speedy trial procedures solely as it relates to jury trials,” Colaw wrote. “Furthermore, the Florida Supreme Court’s administrative orders have no effect on the Office of the State Attorney’s ability to investigate its cases. The administrative orders limit what the courts can do, not the state or the defense.  In that regard, the Florida Supreme Court’s administrative orders reflect an expectation that the parties will be prosecuting their cases in all other respects.”

Prosecutors on Sept. 11 filed a notice of appeal after Colaw rejected their arguments for a rehearing. While prosecutors have not filed full legal arguments at the Tallahassee-based appeals court, they have contended that Colaw did not properly interpret the Supreme Court’s direction about the suspension of speedy-trial procedures.

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“The state believes that the court (Colaw) misapplied the law when it found, as its sole legal basis, that the Florida Supreme Court did not intend for the suspension of the speedy trial to include the filing of charging documents which is the situation presented in this case,” prosecutors wrote in an Aug. 31 motion for rehearing.

Clay County Circuit Judge Michael Sharrit, however, sided with prosecutors on similar questions in a case involving defendant David Pulliam, who was arrested Nov. 29 after a traffic crash, according to court records.

Pulliam was initially charged in December with two counts of DUI with bodily injury and driving with a suspended or revoked license. But prosecutors on June 12 filed an amendment that upgraded one of the charges to DUI manslaughter after the death of Larry Tode, a victim in the accident.

But Pulliam’s attorneys argued that the charge could not be amended because the move came after the expiration of the 175-day speedy trial period.

“But for the outbreak of COVID and inability to exercise his right to a jury trial due to public health concerns, Defendant’s case would have been tried and disposed of prior to Mr. Tode passing away,” Pulliam’s attorneys argued in a June court document.

“It is prejudicial and fundamentally unfair for Defendant to face a greater loss of his liberty by allowing the state to enhance his charges at this time.”

Sharrit rejected Pulliam’s arguments in a two-page order issued Aug. 3, prompting an appeal.

“For purposes of this case, the speedy trial time period otherwise applicable has been suspended by order of the Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court,” Sharitt wrote “The language contained in the applicable administration orders did not indicate that only certain aspects of ‘the Rule’ should be suspended or that ‘the Rule’ should remain in effect for any particular consideration. As a matter of law and procedure, the Speedy Trial Rule is generally suspended.”

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