The bottom line is keeping the courts open
By Mark D. Killian
If a full-fledged bird-flu pandemic hits Florida, the Department of Health estimates the total duration of the event could last up to three years; 35 percent of the population could become ill; and as many as 320,000 Floridians could die.
While it is difficult to predict when the next influenza pandemic will occur or how severe it will be, it is against this backdrop that the Florida Supreme Court recently approved a strategy document for the courts to deal with a flu pandemic, prepared by the Unified Supreme Court/Branch Court Emergency Management Group.
Greg Cowan of the Office of State Courts Administrator said the document provides a broad level strategy following the lines of the strategy for a flu pandemic President Bush outlined for the nation in November 2005.
“We have taken their planning efforts and applied them to the Florida courts and how a pandemic would affect the Florida courts,” Cowan said, adding that now that an overall state court system strategy has been spelled out, Florida’s chief judges have until November 30 to get their local plans in place.
The statewide plan has two strategic goals for the courts:
• Deal with any crises in a way that protects the health and safety of everyone at
the court facilities; and
• Keep the courts open to ensure justice for the people.
Faced with a flu pandemic, Cowan said the most likely scenario, specifically for the Florida state courts, includes:
• A significant increase may occur in emergency matters and case filings generated due to issues associated with the quarantine and isolation of individuals by state and local public health officials;
• One third of the judges, attorneys, parties, clerks, deputy sheriffs, court administrators and staff, state and local public health officials, jurors, etc., necessary to perform the mission-essential functions, will not be available due to illness or death;
• Face-to-face contact necessary to perform mission-essential court functions may be dramatically limited or unavailable;
• Court facilities, court infrastructure, public utilities, residences, etc., will all, more
than likely, be physically undamaged but may be impacted by a lack of adequate staffing due to isolation, quarantine, illness, or death of necessary staff to keep operations running.
The report contains both tactical and long term objectives for the courts, both of which are augmentations of existing court continuity of operations plans that were put into place after the September 11 terrorists attacks.
“So the Florida state courts have been in emergency preparedness business for years now,” Cowan said.
In the first 90 days of continuity of operations plan activation due to the outset of an influenza pandemic, the tactical objectives will be to have the capacity to perform all mission-essential functions, as should be currently defined in each courts’ continuity of operations plans and have the capacity to address all emergency matters and cases generated due to issues associated with the quarantine and isolation of individuals and other public health-related cases brought by public health officials.
These short-term objectives may need to be performed under a situation where no, or only limited, face-to-face contact is possible due to illness or death, the report said.
Within 90 days of continuity of operations plan activation, the tactical objective is to have the capacity to perform all criminal matters, including conducting jury trials, addressing all emergency civil matters, and performing all other mission-essential functions under a situation where no, or only limited, face-to-face contact is possible and with significant impact to judges, attorneys, parties, clerks and deputy clerks, sheriffs and deputy sheriffs, court administrators and staff, state and local public health officials, jurors, etc., due to illness or death.
The report says technology also will be vital in order to maintain operations in a pandemic.
“Given that an influenza pandemic may place extraordinary limits on face-to-face interactions, these plans should now be updated to consider the supporting IT infrastructure components necessary to perform all appropriate mission-essential functions and other tactical objectives by videoconference or teleconference/telephone, if conditions require,” according to the report. “In order to assist in these efforts, attorneys with the OSCA General Counsel’s Office have advised that all court proceedings could legally be held via videoconference if necessary.”
The report, Florida State Courts Strategy for Pandemic Influenza, can be accessed at www.flcourts.org/gen_public/emergency/index.shtml.