Thinking Outside the Four Corners

Following the Florida Supreme Court’s order, the Twelfth Judicial Circuit Court limited the number of in-person hearings at the courthouses on Monday, March 23, 2020, and began welcoming people to its virtual courtrooms instead. The world was fighting a virus but the court found a way to “do justice” while keeping everyone safe and protecting the health of citizens.

The Florida State Courts System has been preparing for a large-scale emergency. After 9/11, the SCS created a pandemic guide, and all 20 of the judicial circuits have hurricane contingency plans. As a whole, Florida Courts have embraced social media and the internet (see the Florida Supreme Court’s YouTube channel) and they have proven vital in quickly informing court partners and citizens to changing court procedures.

As the novel coronavirus shuttered businesses and encouraged people to stay home, the Twelfth Circuit rolled out its emergency plan. Court managers and judges consulted with county government officials and public health experts, criminal justice partners, Clerks of Court, and the local Bar Associations to help define the new way of doing business.

We greatly reduced the number of people in our court buildings and created flexible schedules for essential court staff. Our technology department deployed a squadron of laptops, thumb drives and assorted computer accessories to employees working from home.

Social-distancing requirements have some judges working in nearly empty courtrooms, accompanied by only a handful of attorneys, a court deputy, and the occasional court clerk. Incarcerated defendants appear one-by-one on a video monitor mounted to the wall. Attorneys not present in the courtroom appear by phone to advocate for their clients. 

Some judges have been working from home, conducting hearings over the internet and reviewing court files and documents submitted.

One judge held proceedings on the courthouse lawn, palm trees casting long shadows in the mid-morning sun. After his hearing, one defendant stepped off the grass and climbed onto a bus that had only a few minutes before pulled next to the curb, the smell of exhaust lingering in the air.

This is court in the time of COVID-19. Video monitors, telephones, the internet and sunscreen are the go-to tools giving citizens access to justice.

Between March 23 and April 24, 2020, Twelfth Circuit judges conducted more than 2,500 hearings involving criminal, family, civil, juvenile, and probate matters using closed circuit TV, videoconferencing software and the trusty telephone. That number does not include the numerous video or phone hearings held daily by judges assigned to circuit civil and county civil cases – the types of hearings that the court is not required to record at taxpayer expense.

The Twelfth Circuit has used video technology to conduct hearings for many years to minimize the risk to public safety by transporting inmates to and from the jail, so a quick tutorial to use video software was all it took before judges and magistrates were scheduling hearings and posting notices of them on the court’s website.

Video has not been limited to court hearings. The judges have hosted virtual town halls to communicate with attorneys about temporary changes in court procedures and to gain feedback, connect with other judges throughout the state and remain current on their own continuing education.

The Future of Court Proceedings

What’s going to happen in courtrooms after the threat of the virus has ended? Could video and telephone conferencing be what achieving justice looks like in the future?

The courthouse will never be obsolete; we are just finding new ways to provide access to court.

Florida’s Supreme Court Justice, Charles Canady, created a 17-member workgroup to shape the phased reopening of court buildings and resuming normal operations. However, the workgroup has one eye on the future. Chief Justice Canady has tasked the workgroup to look at the advantages and disadvantages of continuing the use of remote technology in some proceedings.

So far, the workgroup in its early stages has concluded several proceedings could occur electronically if parties agree, such as civil cases, non-criminal traffic cases, and mediations.

Just as there are advantages to using remote technology in the courtroom, so too are there disadvantages, a big one being the digital divide. Some citizens lack access to the internet, smartphones, WiFi, adequate data plans, and privacy to speak about sensitive issues. These obstacles must be removed before comprehensive changes to how justice is served can occur.

Turning Attention to the New 'Abnormal'

For the next several months, we will slowly begin to increase foot traffic into court buildings but the proceedings will remain a combination of limited in-person hearings, and video and phone hearings as we continue to heed public health recommendations.

As we turn our attention to the new “abnormal” way of conducting business, the court is diligently working with local county governments and sheriffs to plan for everyone’s safe and socially distant return to the court buildings.

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