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80% of Seventh Circuit Town Hall participants favor the continued use of remote technology

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Chief Judge Raul A. ZambranoSenior judges in the Seventh Judicial Circuit weren’t eager to embrace online technology, and some practitioners are letting decorum slide.

That’s the assessment Chief Judge Raul A. Zambrano gave President Dori Foster-Morales at a September 15 virtual town hall forum on the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If you have a Zoom meeting, get out of bed, please, brush your hair,” Judge Zambrano said. “Please, put on a suit.”

At least one judge had to drive to a senior judge’s home to help establish a video link, Judge Zambrano said, and some judges fashioned hand-held signs instructing litigants to “un-mute.”

One defendant could be seen performing his warehouse job while he was waiting for a remote appearance, and bad camera angles make some clients appear to be sitting in their attorney’s laps, Judge Zambrano said.

“Some of the optics sometimes cause a lot of questions,” he said.

Tempers have flared, Judge Zambrano said.

“Frustration sets in sometimes, and causes us to be less than professional,” he said. “Thank God for the mute button. This has required an extraordinary amount of patience.”

The forums are part of Foster-Morales’ 20-circuit listening tour to collect member concerns and suggestions, and data.

“This morning, we are focusing on how we as lawyers are coping with the pandemic, and how the judicial system is adapting,” Foster-Morales said.

Member comments and responses to anonymous Zoom polls are being forwarded to the COVID-19 Pandemic Recovery Task Force, Foster-Morales said.

The 13-member panel, chaired by President-elect Michael Tanner, is working quickly to shape the Bar’s response and develop strategies for helping members deal with the health crisis.

One of the first projects was a redesign of the Bar’s COVID-19 Information and Resources webpage said board member Philip J. Bonamo, who represents the Seventh Circuit.

“You’ll see things such as Supreme Court orders and announcements, updates from The Florida Bar, extensions of CLE cycle reports, free CLEs on pandemic-related issues and topics, LegalFuel.com. And then of course, health and wellness information, member benefits.”

Stretching across Flagler, Putnam, St. Johns, and Volusia counties, the Seventh Circuit includes historic St. Augustine and the Daytona International Speedway.

A Zoom poll conducted during the forum showed more than 80% of respondents would welcome the continued use of remote technology for non-evidentiary and evidentiary hearings after the pandemic subsides.

But that doesn’t mean that lawyers aren’t eager to return to the courtroom, some panel members said.

Kenneth Janesk II, president of the Putnam County Bar Association, said isolation is making life harder for members who can’t afford to advertise.

“For our private counsel, their advertising comes from being in the courtroom,” he said. “That’s where some of their stress level comes from.”

In the beginning, the pandemic made some legal practices hard to maintain, said Travis Mydock, who represents the Seventh Circuit on the YLD Board of Governors.

“I do criminal, I’m a solo practitioner,” he said. “Nobody was calling, nobody was getting arrested, but things have sort of picked up.”

Young lawyers have been hampered by lack of childcare, but judges and other lawyers have been understanding about interruptions, he said.

“My kids are screaming in the background, their kids are screaming in the background,” he said. “But we’re all in this together, we’re all getting through it.”

Foster-Morales urged participants to take advantage of the new Florida Lawyers Helpline (1-833-FL1-HELP).

The confidential service, staffed 24/7 by licensed professionals, offers access to free mental-health counseling, child and senior care, financial counseling, and a host of other services.

“If you are going through some stresses, I think we all are, I know I am, I urge you to call,” she said. “Confidentiality is a real important part of the helpline. That means that even if I wanted to call to get basic information…what are the big questions, what are their big concerns…their answer is, ‘I can’t tell you.’”

Flagler County Bar Association President Alicia Washington said her group wanted to sponsor weekly Zoom meetings so members could offer mutual support, but there was resistance.

“We thought about doing that happy hour Zoom,” she said. “But I don’t think lawyers by nature are very trusting. Questions came up, like, is it going to be recorded?”

Christina J. Opsahl, president of the St. Johns County Bar Association, said her group managed to sponsor a judicial roundtable to discuss evidence submission, and other “lunch and learn” sessions.

But now that infection rates are declining, pressure is building to return to in-person events.

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