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Court’s COVID-19 Workgroup formulates current and future solutions

Senior Editor Top Stories

Judges, Bar, court clerks all providing information

COVID-19 WorkgroupTwo weeks after it was set up, a special workgroup dealing with how the court system can function during the coronavirus pandemic had its first suggestions — mostly dealing with what court operations could be handled remotely — accepted and promulgated by the Supreme Court.

A week later, the court distributed more COVID-19 Workgroup recommendations, largely dealing with helping pro se parties appear remotely in court proceedings.

Expect more. The Workgroup on the Continuity of Court Operations and Proceedings During and After COVID-19 is only part way through six specific tasks assigned when Chief Justice Charles Canady created it on April 21 in Administrative Order SC28-20. The 17-member workgroup includes several judges, a state attorney, a public defender, a clerk of court, court staffers, and a former member of the Bar Board of Governors.

“It’s their new full-time job in addition to what they’re already responsible for doing in their individual courts or organizations,” said Ninth Circuit Judge Lisa Munyon, who chairs the panel.

“We meet as an entire workgroup at least once a week,” she continued. “I’ve broken the workgroup down into several subgroups, each of which meets several times a week.

Twelfth Circuit Chief Judge Kimberly Bonner heads the subgroup on criminal matters, including problem solving courts, civil traffic, and ordinance violations. Twentieth Circuit Chief Judge Michael McHugh leads the subgroup on civil, probate, guardianship, and mental-health courts. Seventeenth Circuit Judge Hope Bristol is leading the family and unified family court subgroup, which also includes dependency and delinquency and UFC problem-solving courts. Third District Court of Appeal Chief Judge Kevin Emas chairs the appellate subgroup. Emas and 11th Circuit Chief Judge Bertila Soto co-chair the subgroup working on court operations.

“They are all extremely hardworking, extremely knowledgeable in their areas,” Munyon said of the workgroup members. “I could not have asked for a better group of colleagues to undertake this monumental task. They really, each of them, have pulled their own weight and more.”

Jay CohenFt. Lauderdale attorney Jay Cohen, a former member of the Bar Board of Governors, serves on the civil workgroup and said he acts as liaison between Bar leaders, sections, and the workgroup.

“It is an awesome experience to work with these other 16 members of the task force appointed by Justice Canady,” said Cohen. “They are a dedicated, incredible group of individuals who know that this is a very serious task and job and it’s taken in that context.

“There’s an incredible amount of information that we are supplied with and that we get through. We’ve got subgroup committee meetings, we’ve got full workgroup meetings. It’s every week and even on weekends.

He added, “The Florida Bar is being well served by this task force in its consideration of safety and advancing the system we have in place for justice, both criminally and civilly. I continue to welcome The Florida Bar lawyers who have reached out to me, the sections who have also indicated a willingness to provide resources.”

Polk County Clerk of Court Stacy ButterfieldAs Cohen is working to get lawyer input, Polk County Clerk of Court Stacy Butterfield, another workgroup member and current president of Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers, is working with court clerks to provide information and assistance. She praised Canady for the broad range of interests represented on the workgroup.

“Purposeful partnerships between the many judicial stakeholders have always been important, and even more so now, given these challenging and unprecedented times,” Butterfield said. “Upon being appointed to the workgroup, I formed a team of clerks representing counties of various sizes to help me research and address the work of the group. This has been absolutely crucial to helping me keep up with the workload, tasks, and timelines expected of the group. I wouldn’t be able to do it without them.”

Of particular concern, she said, are jury trials since clerks play a large role in summoning and managing jury pools.

“Many logistics go into jury coordination, and it often requires large groups of people gathering in one location. The world’s thinking of large crowds has shifted during this pandemic. This is a unique development that we will need to keep in mind as we shape plans related to juries,” Butterfield said. “Having clerks’ perspective and insight on this will be crucial to creating the most reasonably sound plan.”

Munyon praised support the workgroup is getting from the Office of the State Courts Administrator, which is providing staff support.

OSCA spokesperson Paul Flemming called it an “all-hands-on-deck effort.”

Tina White, chief of OSCA Innovations & Outreach, and her deputy, Andrew Johns, are heading up a staff of around 20 people working full time on workgroup issues, with other people supplementing the effort as needed, he said.

“Once you start thinking about it, it doesn’t take too long before you realize all the complexities,” Flemming said. “It’s like building the car while you’re driving down the highway.”

There’s also a corollary effort, which includes support from the Bar, to prepare a public information effort to educate the public when the courts are ready to reopen so people are aware of and comfortable with what is being done, he said.

As tough as the workgroup’s assignment is, Munyon, who also chairs the Florida Courts Technology Commission, said it could have been much worse. She pointed to the Supreme Court’s decades-old decision to begin the transition from a paper-based to an electronic court system.

“If the court had not started down the road 20 years ago to make records electronic, can you image where we would be at the moment?” she said. “They should be commended for their foresight.”

Chief Justice Charles Canady created the workgroup on April 21. In six pages, the order named the 17 members, set out its challenges, and six phases for making its recommendations.

On May 4, in an amendment to SCAO23-20 extending earlier pandemic procedures and remedy, Canady also implemented recommendations from the workgroup, detailing eight areas where remote court proceedings are appropriate, from alternative dispute resolution cases to juvenile delinquency cases to noncriminal traffic infraction hearings to “problem-solving court staffings, hearings, and wellness checks.”

Then on May 11, Canady issued a “Best Practices” memo to chief judges of the district courts of appeal and circuit courts recommending ways to improve court operations that include assisting pro se parties with technology so they can appear remotely, a set of best practices guidelines for courts and for pro se parties in remote hearings, another set of guidelines for handling evidence on family and civil remote hearings, and recommendations for criminal proceedings involving out-of-county inmates.

AOSC28-20 laid out six phases for the workgroup’s recommendations:

• Examine court proceedings, from pretrial conferences to jury trials, to determine which are amenable to remote proceedings and what’s required those cases.

• Recommend ways to facilitate remote proceedings, including “legal issues, implementation challenges, and cost issues,” in cases using ADR, in problem-solving, family, probate, guardianship and mental health courts, “and other contexts as may be identified.”

• Consult with public health, medical, and other experts on the best way for “the progressive and safe return of judges, personnel, parties, counsel, jurors, and the public to court facilities.”

• Recommend the order for allowing the resumption of in-person trials and hearings.

• Find ways to measure case backlogs and performance.

• Identify whether some remote proceedings should be continued, after the pandemic passes, to promote efficiency for the courts, the parties, and others. The workgroup is also charged with identifying “issues that should be addressed in the State Courts System’s pandemic guidance material and other emergency operation documents and protocols to strengthen governance and preparedness for future events.”

The administrative order authorized the workgroup to consult with health experts and “justice stakeholders” and noted that a gradual reopening or in-person court operations may be necessary. The workgroup can address any other issues related to the pandemic’s effect on the courts not specifically identified in the order. The workgroup also may as necessary propose procedural rule and statutory changes.

Workgroup members include a cross section of justice system officials.

Aside from Munyon, Cohen and Clerk Butterfield, non-judges include 18th Circuit State Attorney Philip G. Archer, Fourth District Court of Appeal Marshal Daniel DiGiacomo, 10th Circuit Public Defender Howard Dimmig, 14th Circuit Chief Technology Officer Gary Hagan, Third Circuit Trial Court Administrator Charles Hydovitz, and Supreme Court Clerk John Tomasino. Judicial members, besides Munyon, are 12th Circuit Chief Judge Kimberly C. Bonner, 17th Circuit Judge Hope Bristol, Third DCA Chief Judge Kevin Emas, Volusia County Judge Christopher Kelly, Fourth Circuit Judge Don Lester, Collier County Judge Janeice Martin, 20th Circuit Chief Judge Michael McHugh, and 11th Circuit Chief Judge Bertila Soto.

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