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COVID-19: The Court’s Response

The Honorable Donald A. Myers, Jr., Chief Judge, Ninth Judicial Circuit Court

Chief’s Column // The Briefs // May 2020, Vol. 88 No. 4

These are difficult and challenging times. Never before in the history of our courts have we suspended jury trials, postponed hearings, or restricted access to the courthouses for such a prolonged period. In a circuit where nearly a half a million cases were filed and almost 40,000 jurors reported for service last year – the impact of these measures on the courts is profound.

While this idea of shutting down is not new to us – hurricanes have forced several shutdowns over the past few years – the focus of the shutdown is. In the past, the physical impact of a storm on the courthouse buildings necessitated a shut down. One that was limited in time and scope.

The COVID-19 pandemic is vastly different. And, it’s imperative that we not lose sight of why it’s different and what’s important in handling this crisis – and that’s people. We are not concerned here about the structural soundness of a building, but rather the health and wellness of the thousands of people that walk through the doors of our courthouses every week. Every consideration, every discussion of the impact of COVID-19 and the challenges facing the courts must first take into account the safety of people.

This crisis has challenged the courts to push beyond long-held processes and procedures to find innovative ways to provide access to justice while placing the utmost priority on the health and safety of our judges, staff, legal professionals, and court users. The work of the court doesn’t stop in the face of a virus. Therefore, we need to be concerned about both the people in the building and the administration of due process; of people being in close proximity to one another and their constitutional protections. And, the Ninth Circuit has approached these challenges with the urgency, professionalism, and commitment this situation demands.

As I am sure you are all aware, we have scaled back court operations, holding only those hearings defined by the Florida Supreme Court as essential and critical to the state of emergency or the public health emergency. First appearances continue, as do criminal arraignments and juvenile delinquency detention hearings. Orders of protection for the safety of victims, Baker and Marchman Acts, guardianship, and emergency shelter hearings are also continuing in person and via remote connections. We hold these proceedings following strict social distancing guidelines – but our judiciary has implemented additional procedures to ensure everyone’s safety.

Parties are being held in separate areas of the courthouse and the jail to limit interaction and enforce social distancing. When possible, judges are appearing remotely to further limit the number of people congregating in the courtroom. Judges are leveraging their dockets to capitalize on the involvement of staff and support agency personnel while also limiting their time in the courthouse. Every step of the way, our judges are working to ensure that these critical emergency services remain available while placing the highest priority on health and safety.

For those nonessential matters, many – like eviction and traffic hearings – will be rescheduled. However, day by day we continue to add to the services that we are able to provide by hearing cases remotely.

The Ninth has long embraced the benefits of technology in the operations of the courts, and by leveraging that technology we were quickly able to shift many nonessential cases to a remote platform. There has been a tremendous response from our judiciary.

In both the criminal and civil divisions, judges across the circuit have opened their calendars and dockets to schedule remote hearings. This process is far more involved than simply continuing a trial. There are hundreds of hearings a day involving hundreds of people – pretrial hearings, case management conferences, suppression hearings, evidentiary hearings, etc. – that all need to be scheduled. This is a massive undertaking, and one that has been instrumental in the continued functionality of the courts during this pandemic.

Judges in the domestic division have also opened their calendars and dockets to schedule remote hearings. Family law proceedings are being heard through either video or teleconferences, and family judges in Orange and Osceola developed a joint procedure to assist with the coordination of parenting plans during the crisis.

While injunctions for protection must still be filed in person at the courthouse, almost all other domestic violence hearings are being conducted remotely. Judges have worked together to structure their dockets to hear filings on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, and they have streamlined their processes to leverage interagency participation and coordination.

All of our judges have shown incredible creativity, ingenuity, commitment, and organizational skill in coordinating and creating court dockets that can be handled electronically. They have prioritized working together to manage processes and streamline procedure – and sharing these changes through their web pages on the circuit’s website. There isn’t a judge or staff member that isn’t doing everything they can to continue to meet the essential needs of our community during this pandemic. I am grateful for their commitment and work ethic and thank them for all their efforts to keep our courts operational and our community safe.

This is a unique and unusual season of life in the court, but we will find ourselves on the other side, and I think that we will experience many benefits because of it. We have gained a full appreciation for the technology, having vetted its efficiency, reliability, economy, and safety. We’ve also gained a full appreciation for what we can truly accomplish remotely – foreseeing its future impact on case flow and user access. And, we look forward to being able to open the door fully, taking with us the knowledge we’ve gained and continuing to serve the community.

The Honorable Donald A. Myers, Jr., chief judge of the Ninth Judicial Circuit, was elected to the Circuit Court for Orange and Osceola counties in 2010 and has been an OCBA member since 1980.

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