A number of circuits prepare to resume in-person jury trials
With COVID-19 infection rates declining in Miami-Dade and surrounding counties, the 11th Judicial Circuit has announced that it is prepared to resume in-person jury trials March 1.
“That does not mean that trials are actually going to be going, that means that we’re ready for them,” said Circuit Judge Nushin Sayfie, who becomes chief judge July 1. “What is required now is for the attorneys on both sides to be ready, and if their case does not resolve, to actually be ready to go to trial.”
Judge Sayfie stressed that safety is a top priority, adding that court administrators began consulting health experts and developing protocols this summer. Courthouses will remain closed to the general public, Judge Sayfie said.
“We’re confident we can do this safely,” she said. “It may not be the most efficient process, but we believe we can do it safely.”
Miami attorney Jude Faccidomo, president-elect of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, supports the decision.
“I feel like the effort and the investigation, in and of itself, is worthwhile, because we need to see if this is something that can be done, and done safely,” he said.
But with a more contagious “U.K. variant” threatening Florida, Faccidomo says he understands why some of his colleagues are opposed to resuming in-person trials.
“As criminal defense lawyers, we’ve got to be the guardians of due process and people’s right to access to the courts, but we also have to be cognizant of our safety, other people’s safety, our clients’ safety and health, and trying to marry those things is not going to be easy,” he said.
Faccidomo serves on a local pandemic task force with Judge Sayfie and Chief Judge Bertila Soto.
“They’re both very concerned, primarily with safety, but they also have to fulfill their constitutional obligations,” he said. “I can’t say enough about both of them, and how great they’ve both been trying to make this work.”
Meanwhile, the 17th Circuit has posted a notice on its website that “limited face-to-face hearings and jury trials in the county and circuit criminal divisions” will resume March 8.
“These proceedings will include limited jury trials in the county criminal division and hearings on violations of probation in the circuit criminal division,” the announcement says. “All other divisions will continue to operate remotely on Zoom.”
In-person jury trials have resumed further north in the 15th Judicial Circuit, as well as other circuits, but the pace has been slow.
Addressing a legislative committee last month, Justice Canady reported that Florida courts are on track to dispose of 2.8 million cases this year, despite the pandemic, largely with the help of remote technology.
But the courts still expect to face 1.1 million pending cases by the end of June, not counting an additional 145,000, pandemic-generated cases, including evictions and foreclosures, Justice Canady said.
“When we get to things that are more like normal, there’s going to be a pile of work,” he said. “It’s a challenge that’s not going to be met in just six months.”
The 11th Circuit faces a bigger challenge than most.
Eleventh Circuit State Attorney Katherine Fernandez-Rundle recently wrote to her local legislative delegation that her criminal caseload increased nearly 55% in 2020, from 34,152 to 52,842.
“With arrests trending upwards toward pre-COVID levels, we anticipate the caseload to climb even more rapidly during the next few months,” she wrote. “We will face crushingly high caseloads by the time the courts fully reopen.”