11th Judicial Circuit holds Florida’s first remote jury trial
Jury selection was accomplished remotely and streamed live on the 11th Circuit’s YouTube page
In addition to traditional robes, 11th Circuit Judge Beatrice Butchko wore a surgical mask and plastic face shield.
The attorneys, in crisp suits, also donned PPE.
Shortly after the masked jurors filed into the courtroom, 11th Circuit Chief Judge Bertila Soto thanked them for their service, and their willingness to make history.
“This is a really important day for this country, definitely for the state of Florida,” Chief Judge Soto said. “I know this isn’t going to be easy, but this is one of the highest duties you serve as American citizens. “
Court officials spent months consulting epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists so that safety would be paramount, Soto said.
“I was moved as an American that so many of you were willing to do this,” Soto said. “I know that everyone in the state of Florida and the court system will be happy to see this going forward.”
Florida’s first remote jury trial, part of a voluntary pilot program that Chief Justice Charles Canady authorized in five circuits, is styled People’s Trust Insurance Company vs. Yusem Corchero et al.
The trial is an insurance dispute that arose from the damage Hurricane Irma inflicted on a South Florida home in September 2017.
Both sides volunteered to be part of the non-binding proceeding. Testimony began July 14.
Outside the protective bubble of the courtroom, COVID-19 was surging. Only the day before, the Florida Department of Health reported 12,624 new coronavirus cases, bringing the total number to 282,435.
Court officials consulted with health experts on Friday before agreeing to allow jurors to enter the mostly empty courthouse the following Tuesday, Judge Soto said.
“We talked to them and they went through our process and they told us that they felt that we could go forward,” she said. “The epidemiologist basically said, look, you’ve done absolutely everything.”
The health experts, all volunteers, included Dr. Cindy Prins, University of Florida Epidemiology Department; Dr. Erin Kobetz, University of Miami Health System; Dr. Kenneth Ratzan, Mount Sinai Medical Center; Dr. Hansel Tookes, University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, Infectious Diseases Division, and Dr. Zinzi Bailey, University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
When they arrived at the courthouse, jurors were given special parking to limit walking. They were temperature checked and required to complete a health questionnaire.
Always escorted, the jury rode the elevator to the 20th floor in pairs.
Once in the courtroom, jurors were socially distanced and seated in two rows that extended beyond the jury box. They were provided surgical masks and face shields, and boxes to store notebooks and personal belongings.
Before opening statements, jurors were reminded of the ground rules. Gloves are optional, surgical masks are not. Face shields must be worn, “whenever your feet are moving,” they were warned.
Witnesses testified surrounded by Plexiglass. Lawyers occasionally conducted sidebars with Judge Butchko in an adjoining room.
Jury selection was accomplished remotely and streamed live on the 11th Circuit’s YouTube page.
Before the trial, a survey conducted by the local chapter of the American Board of Trial Advocates of more than 600 Miami-Dade residents showed that local citizens would be willing to perform their civic duty during a pandemic, said Administrative Judge Jennifer Bailey.
“People see the right to a jury trial as essential work,” she said. “It’s something that we need to go forward on, provided — and it’s a big provided — that we take the necessary steps to keep everyone safe.”
For the pilot program, court officials edited a traditional jury summons so that it instructed recipients to go online instead of reporting to the courthouse, Judge Bailey said.
A 30% response yielded about 700 qualified and eligible jurors, from which, 120 were selected to participate in initial Zoom interviews, she said. Relatively few cited the pandemic as a reason for not wanting to serve, Judge Bailey said.
“In the end, there were about 12 to 14 people, who, for various reasons COVID-related, ultimately we excused for cause,” she said.
Using remote technology for jury selection allowed court officials to limit the number of people required to report to the courthouse.
The other circuits authorized to conduct pilots, Fourth, Seventh, Ninth and 20th, have yet to begin a proceeding, and some are reporting difficulty finding willing participants.
Chief Justice Charles Canady’s amended order authorizing the pilots requires the circuits to report results by October 2.
The 11th Circuit has more volunteers willing to participate, but Judge Soto said she has yet to decide whether to attempt another trial.
Some lessons are already clear, Judge Bailey said. One juror had to be excused after waiting too long to download the videoconferencing app.
“The only thing I would really do differently is have a technologist reach out to the jury the night before,” she said.
Another lesson is also clear, Judge Bailey said.
“This has taken a very significant dedication of time, effort and human resources behind the scenes to make this happen as seamlessly as it has,” she said. “It makes the idea of scaling up a significant number of jury trials extremely challenging.”
Regardless of the results of the pilot, the effort has been rewarding, Judge Soto said. The 11th Circuit conducted more than 32,000 Zoom hearings between March 30 and June 30, and is determined to perform its mission, she said.
“It’s about access to courts, it’s about the Constitution, it’s about the third branch of government and making sure that the people have access to what’s essential,” she said.
Judge Bailey declined to pass judgement on the pilot, “until we’ve landed the plane.” But the experience has been worthwhile, she said.
“We’re privileged to have been selected by the Florida Supreme Court, and we’re privileged to have had the leadership from Judge Soto, and to have had the workforce who really embraced this challenge, from Judge Butchko who volunteered to do this trial, to the lawyers and clients who agreed to do it, to the technologists and staff who really scrambled to make this work.”