Courts are cautiously preparing for the resumption of jury trials
11th Circuit might see a limited resumption of jury trials as early as October
With COVID-19 infection rates slowing, courts throughout Florida are beginning to plan for the resumption of jury trials.
While the prospect still remains “a big question mark,” Florida’s busiest court system could see a limited resumption of jury trials as early as October, said 11th Circuit Chief Judge Bertila Soto.
“I along with all the other chief judges want to make sure that we start getting to the backlog of cases,” Judge Soto said.
On August 24, the Seventh Judicial Circuit marked the latest recovery milestone when it convened the first criminal jury trial since the pandemic forced the suspension of normal court operations in March.
By August 27, an Office of State Courts Administrator website showed that more than half of Florida counties had transitioned from Phase 1 to Phase 2 health restrictions, conditions that could permit jury trials under certain conditions.
This week, OSCA began ramping up the dissemination of educational material for prospective jurors.
The Supreme Court’s Workgroup on the Continuity of Court Operations and Proceedings During and After COVID-19 has produced a number of videos, social media graphics, and messaging about new procedures in place at courthouses and for people responding to summonses for jury service. The videos can be seen at www.Steps2SafeCourts.org.
“Resumption of jury trials is an important next step as health conditions improve. We’ve always tried to convey the essential role jurors play, and that’s only more true now,” said Judge Lisa Munyon, chair of the Court Continuity Workgroup. “Our courts and our clerks are taking evidence-based steps to resume jury service responsibly. These videos and messages help spread the word about what is being done to protect the health and safety of participants, including jurors. Prospective jurors, in turn, are helping protect our rights and liberties by serving.”
The 11th Circuit remains in Phase 1, but Miami-Dade’s positivity rate fell to 9% this week, an encouraging sign, Judge Soto said.
Before jury trials could resume in the 11th, low infection rates would have to be sustained and the circuit would have to develop and submit a transition plan to the Office of State Courts Administrator.
“So even though this is a big question mark — we have Labor Day and schools opening, we don’t know if there’s going to be a second wave coming in, and we have flu season coming — we’re getting ramped up and ready, because we realize that access is so important,” Judge Soto said.
Even then, Judge Soto said, 11th Circuit courts would not be open to the public and health restrictions would permit only a limited number of jury trials.
“It’s going to be maybe three trials a week in each building, maximum, because we not only have to have the courtroom, but we have to have the staff,” she said.
Social distancing requirements would mean reserving elevators, restrooms, and an empty courtroom where jurors could take meals, in addition to requiring extensive use of protective equipment, Judge Soto said.
The good news, Judge Soto said, is that the 11th Circuit’s rapid transition to remote technology has helped limit the backlog of cases.
“Since March 30th, our circuit has heard 94,140 hearings on Zoom, and this week alone, in criminal…they’ve had 31,905 hearings set,” she said.
Jurors should be comforted by the public service announcements, which explain the extensive steps that will be taken to protect their health, Judge Soto said.
The 11th Circuit held a partially remote jury trial in July as part of a voluntary remote civil jury pilot program that Chief Justice Charles Canady authorized earlier this year. Juror response to the summonses was remarkably high, Judge Soto said.
“I think people want life to come back to normal, and part of that is jury service,” she said. “So, I think they look forward to it, actually.”