Florida Chief Justice Charles Canady took another step Wednesday toward reopening the state’s trial courts in a COVID-19 world, resuming limited in-person litigation with a strong preference for remote proceedings using telecommunications technology.
Four jurisdictions have met the criteria Canady has set to begin limited in-person proceedings, subject to protective measures: The 9th Judicial Circuit, in Orange and Osceola Counties; the 15th, in Palm Beach County; the 17th, in Broward, and the 20th, in Southwest Florida.
But the chief justice’s suspension of the speedy-trial rule in criminal cases continues for now.
The order authorizes chief trial judges to order in-person proceedings if necessary to protect someone’s constitutional rights or if the court, the court clerk, or parties to the matter lack the necessary technology. Additional proceedings, including involuntary commitment, bail hearings, juvenile dependency hearings, and protective order cases, are eligible for in-person hearings.
But even there, the preference for now will remain on remote proceedings.
“Judges and court personnel who can effectively conduct court and judicial branch business from a remote location shall do so. Participants who have the capability of participating by electronic means in remote court proceedings shall do so,” the order says.
Statewide grand jury proceedings remain on hold through July 26. All other jury proceedings, including trials, remain on hold until 30 days after a jurisdiction qualifies for in-person contact.
The criteria for limited resumption of in-person proceedings include lack of confirmed COVID cases within a courthouse for 14 days; rescission of local and state stay-home orders; improving COVID trends over 14 days, and availability of adequate testing programs.
Back in March, when COVID-19 cases were minimal and the public wasn’t prepared yet for a pandemic, the Florida court system was already grinding to a halt, restricting access to courthouses and delaying jury trials, among other measures.
Months later, Canady is authorizing pilot programs experimenting with remote proceedings in civil trials in five jurisdictions: the 4th Circuit in Jacksonville, the 7th Circuit in Daytona Beach; the 9th Circuit; the 11th Circuit; and the 20th Circuit.
The lessons learned through these pilot projects likely will linger long after COVID stops being a daily threat, said Paul Flemming, spokesman for the Office of the State Courts Administrator.
“It’s an opportunity for us to look at how we’re doing things and in many ways improve procedures and how we do things, both as an institution but also for the people of Florida who come to the courts looking for justice,” he said.