FL legal system essentially grinds to a halt; courts restrict access, delay jury trials to contain COVID-19

The Florida Supreme Court. Photo by Colin Hackley.

Florida Chief Justice Charles Canady has ordered court personnel, including judges, to stay away from the state’s courthouses for 14 days if they’ve traveled internationally or to hot spots for COVID-19 within the United States, or have taken a sea cruise.

Meanwhile, the federal court that hears appeals from Florida and other Southeastern states has sharply restricted public access to its courthouse and administration building in Atlanta. Only judges, court personnel, attorneys arguing cases, and reporters will be allowed to enter.

In an order dated Monday, Canady cited guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention intended to discourage transmission of the new coronavirus linked to COVID-19, a potentially fatal respiratory ailment.

As of Sunday evening, 136 Florida residents had been infected, plus six who were diagnosed and isolated outside Florida and 13 non-Florida residents who were diagnosed here, according to the Florida Department of Health.

The state has had four Florida-resident deaths.

Overall, 442 people are being monitored by public health officials and 1,573 people have been monitored to date.

Judges and court workers henceforth must notify their local chief judges of plans to travel internationally or to a domestic hot sport or to embark on a cruise, though the CDC has advised against cruise travel.

Upon their return, they are barred from the state’s courthouses for 14 days.

“To the extent judges can perform their duties remotely, they must do so. Employees will need to utilize their available sick, annual, or compensatory leave during this 14-day period, or consult with their supervisor and their court’s telework policy about options for working remotely,” the order says.

“Court employees without available leave and who are unable to work remotely may be subject to leave without pay.”

A separate order, signed Friday, puts jury trials and grand jury proceedings on hold at least through March 27.

“However, a proceeding that has been commenced may proceed to completion if the presiding judge, with approval of the chief judge, determines that completion of the proceeding without delay is required by the interests of justice. In addition, the requirements of the double jeopardy clause must be considered in criminal proceedings,” Canady wrote.

The order places speedy-trial rules in criminal and juvenile proceedings on hold temporarily and eases restrictions on use of electronic communications in conducting court business. In fact, it encourages them “to the maximum extent feasible.”

In Atlanta, Ed Carnes, chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, published an order on Sunday restricting access to the Elbert T. Tuttle Courthouse and John. C. Godbold administrative annex to “judges, court staff, members of the media, and visitors with official business before the court.”

People delivering court filings, pleadings, and briefs are instructed to deliver them through drop boxes. People diagnosed with COVID-19 or exposure to people with the virus, or who have been asked to self-quarantine or are experiencing flu-like symptoms, may not enter either building or deliver documents.

Update: The U.S. Supreme Court has postponed oral arguments it had scheduled during March. “The court will examine the options for rescheduling those cases in due course in light of the developing circumstances,” the justices said in a news release posted on the court’s website.

The justices will still meet as scheduled on Friday to discuss cases. However, [s]ome justices may participate remotely by telephone,” the release says.

The release notes:

“The court’s postponement of argument sessions in light of public health concerns is not unprecedented. The court postponed scheduled arguments for October 1918 in response to the Spanish flu epidemic. The court also shortened its argument calendars in August 1793 and August 1798 in response to yellow fever outbreaks.”