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COVID-19 has drawn the Fifth Circuit’s already close-knit legal community closer

Senior Editor Top Stories

Chief Judge Daniel Merritt, Jr.The COVID-19 pandemic has created administrative challenges, but it’s also forged stronger alliances in the sprawling Fifth Judicial Circuit, a five-county region of Central Florida that is roughly the size of Connecticut.

That’s the message Chief Judge Daniel Merritt, Jr., gave President Dori Foster-Morales during an August 26 virtual town hall.

Since the crisis forced the suspension of most court operations in March, some judges have been more willing than others to embrace remote technology, Judge Merritt said.

“Some judges are very set in their ways,” he said. “That was the biggest challenge, learning how to use the Zoom platform, and overcoming the resistance to change.”

An anonymous survey conducted during the forum showed that adapting to remote proceedings remains a struggle.

“It seems like, at least in your jurisdiction, technology has been the greatest challenge,” Foster-Morales said. “But you need technology to train, and that can be a real challenge.”

The Marion County Bar Association is working on a potential solution, said president-elect Gordon Glover.

“One of the things that we are planning to do is technology webinars for our members,” he said.

Pro-se litigants don’t have access to remote proceedings, and some parties who have the capability are reluctant to schedule remote hearings, said Marion County Judge Thomas P. Thompson.

“Some folks aren’t really adept at using those devices,” he said. “Some people just want to come to the courthouse, they want their day in court, and you just have to explain.”

Asked by Foster-Morales how he expects to deal with a backlog of residential evictions and mortgage foreclosures, Judge Thompson said, “with great difficulty.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis has extended an emergency moratorium on residential evictions and mortgage foreclosures three times, “but at some point, he’s going to have to lift that,” Judge Thompson said.

County courts will have to deal with the flood of cases at a time when they are still adjusting to a new civil jurisdiction monetary threshold that rose from $15,000 for cases in controversy to $30,000.

“There’s going to be a lot more work coming for county courts,” Judge Thompson said.

With the Florida Lawyers Helpline, the emphasis is on ‘help’Foster-Morales urged participants to take advantage of the new Florida Lawyers Helpline, a confidential service staffed by licensed professionals who serve as a gateway to free mental-health and financial counseling, child and elder care services, and a host of others. (833-351-9355 or “833-FL1-WELL”)

She also recommended The Florida Bar’s new comprehensive COVID-19 webpage that offers the latest news, from Supreme Court orders, CLE, and practice management guides to legal aid and consumer resources.

“COVID-19, the New Coronavirus, Information and Resources,” may be accessed at floridabar.org/covid19 or through a banner at the top of floridabar.org.

Featured prominently are links to the latest from the Bar News, as well as to all of the trial and appellate court websites so members can check for orders and to the Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers site so members may check their county clerk’s page. It also links to federal acts and guidance from relevant federal agencies, and links to other federal agencies and their updates that may assist Florida Bar members.

The pandemic has lingered far longer than most of the legal community anticipated, Judge Merritt said, but it has also forced judges, lawyers, court administrators and clerks to work more closely together.

“We’ve been forged by fire,” he said. “We’re more cohesive and it’s made us [communicate] as a group much better.”

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