July 30, 2020
As we work to slow the spread of COVID-19, we must limit only those with official court business, a scheduled hearing or appointment to enter court buildings. Please do not bring anyone with you to court, because they may not be able to enter the building with you.
We are still in phase 1 of our four-phase plan to full operations but Chief Judge Bonner has authorized the following hearings to occur in-person: Early Case Resolution (ECRs) hearings after felony arraignments and out-of-custody pleas. In-person pleas may take place as approved by the presiding judge and/or the administrative judge, and as long as social-distancing guidelines are followed. Contact the judge's office to schedule in-person plea hearings.
Chief Judge Kimberly C. Bonner's message to attorneys in the 12th Circuit
As you've all seen in the news, Florida has experienced a significant upward trend in COVID-19 cases. This will result in delays to the court reopening. In speaking with health officials in all three of our counties, it appears we are still at least two weeks away from meeting the public health benchmarks set by the supreme court, and quite possibly, longer than that to go to phase 2. The benchmarks include not only the number of new cases, but other factors such as overall percent of positive tests, the percentage of population being tested, and availability of hospital and ICU beds. We have been very fortunate to have great partners in our counties. Our resources and protocols are in place, and we will be ready for phase 2. Working remotely, we are still able to handle our caseloads at near 80% capacity. With the exception of jury trial backlogs, which will be significant, our other work is being done and being done effectively. Some counties in the state had to almost immediately phase back down after moving quickly to phase 2. We are in line with most other circuits in being ready with resources, but waiting for the numbers to either level off at an acceptable rate or trend downward.
Under Justice Canady’s Administrative Order, once a county reaches phase 2, jury trials may commence no earlier than thirty days from that date. During phase 2, we will still be operating under strict protocols, including social distancing and mandatory masks. Thus, the number of available jurors and the space in which to seat them significantly impacts the number of trials we can feasibly conduct. With social distancing, for example, there are a limited number of spaces in each court facility that can seat jurors for trial and for deliberation. Even in phase 3, which depends largely on COVID numbers continuing to decline, we will still be dealing with the criminal backlog as well as the resumption of speedy trial demands. Because criminal cases receive priority for available jurors, it is apparent that there is little to no potential for seating civil juries in 2020. I have therefore made the difficult decision to suspend civil jury trials through the rest of the year. It’s only fair that attorneys and their clients know what to expect and make an informed decision about where to allocate their time and money. Hoping for the best and moving cases a few months ahead accomplishes nothing.
None of us could have predicted what 2020 would look like and I am deeply sorry to those litigants who are relying on a jury to resolve their dispute and who now must wait. The length of the partial shutdown and the backlog of criminal cases, along with inevitable juror shortages and logistical challenges for jury trials means that the math simply doesn’t work in favor of civil trials resuming.
Despite these setbacks, we remain committed to staying open for business and are making full use of technology to hear cases. I want to thank all of you for your compliance with our PPE procedures for those few in-person proceedings we are having. The medical experts that the state workgroup consulted with were unequivocal in stating that masks are the most effective way to prevent spread of the virus. Because people are compelled to come into a court facility, we owe a special duty to all of you to ensure we are following best practices. I assure you we are abiding by them as well, even in our personal work spaces.
I am in constant contact with our local health officials and other constitutional officers, and make every effort to make sure our website is updated with the latest developments. Additionally, judges in all divisions have been holding Zoom town halls or informal online gatherings to discuss questions or concerns. We welcome your input and look forward to seeing you all, in person, soon.