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Bar’s COVID-19 Pandemic Recovery Task Force turns its sights to the future

Senior Editor News in Photos

Mike TannerAfter suspending Bar late fees, redesigning a website, recruiting financial help, and assisting the courts in tackling a massive backlog, the Bar’s COVID-19 Pandemic Recovery Task Force is shifting gears.

Chair Michael Tanner told the Board of Governors at an October 23 meeting that the panel has accomplished its first mission, meeting the most immediate needs of Bar members with solutions that are within the Bar’s control.

“At the outset, the task force really viewed our role to be a first responder,” Tanner said.

While he was making virtual rounds at the Fall Meeting, Tanner reminded his colleagues that the task force was named when few people believed that the pandemic would outlast the summer.

“It should be called the Pandemic Co-Existence Task Force,” he joked.

The panel has been meeting every other week since July, and after initiating a host of ongoing projects that have spilled into other committees, the task force is turning its sights to the future.

“We have pivoted to take a more forward-looking approach,” Tanner told the board.

Chief among its accomplishments is the COVID-19 Information and Resources webpage, Tanner said. It has provided a platform for promoting the task force’s work and keeping Bar members abreast of the latest developments, he said.

“I keep coming back to it because it’s so great,” Tanner told the board. “The Bar staff did a terrific job and it has a lot of valuable information that’s updated constantly.”

The site, www.floridabar.org/Covid19/, contains links to state and federal courts, court clerks, free CLE, and the Bar’s career center network, attorneys exchange, classified employment ads, and the latest pandemic related stories from The Florida Bar News.

The webpage also hosts the latest health information, COVID statistics, and news about vaccine development, Tanner said.

“Some of that information is pretty sobering,” he said.

Webpage readers will also find a task force commissioned white paper by the Trial Lawyers Section that details recommendations for tackling a backlog in the Florida courts that the Trial Court Budget Commission predicts will exceed 990,000 cases.

The paper recommends the appointment of more senior judges, the temporary reassignment of county court judges to serve as circuit judges, and the potential assignment of special “trial masters,” or prominent attorneys who could serve as “private judges.”

Chief Judge Michael McHughTwentieth Circuit Chief Judge Michael McHugh, who chairs a civil panel on the Supreme Court’s COVID-19 Workgroup, discussed the recommendations at the last task force meeting.

“Judge McHugh said some of the things they’re planning on doing is incorporate some of those concepts,” Tanner told the board.

However, McHugh warned that the economic downturn associated with the pandemic will complicate the pandemic recovery plan.

“The key to that is whether the funding will be available,” Tanner told the board.

Twentieth Circuit Judge Margaret Steinbeck, who chairs the Trial Court Budget Commission, is scheduled to address the next task force meeting in November, Tanner said.

McHugh also helped design the 20th Circuit’s remote civil jury pilot program, one of five that Chief Justice Charles Canady authorized in June.

While the pilot program has proven successful in other jurisdictions, the 20th Circuit has not been able to recruit willing parties, McHugh said. The Ninth Circuit is also suffering from a lack of volunteers.

Tanner told Judge McHugh that the task force would promote the pilots on the webpage.

The task force also heard from Fourth Circuit Judge Bruce Anderson, who presided over Florida’s first fully remote, binding civil jury trial in August. Anderson told the task force that remote trials are too resource-intensive to serve as a meaningful solution for the backlog.

But remote jury selection could be a very valuable tool, Judge Anderson said.

“I think the take-away from that was those pilot programs work much better than expected, they worked remarkably well in terms of jury selection,” Tanner said. “Judge Anderson thinks it’s a better way to do it.”

Meanwhile, Tanner told the board, three new task force subcommittees are studying the post-pandemic legal environment.

The Post-Pandemic Remote Proceedings Subcommittee has been assigned to study which legal proceedings should continue remotely after the pandemic is no longer a threat.

The Future Challenges to the Legal Profession Subcommittee will look at the ways the pandemic has changed the practice of law and the best way for lawyers to adjust to the new reality.

And the Section Outreach Committee will make sure that the task force has received input from all corners of the Bar, Tanner said.

“We have our work cut out for us,” Tanner told the board. “We feel like we’ve accomplished a lot, but we have much more work to go.”

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