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JNCs transition to Zoom: Less travel, wider public interest

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Michael C. Sasso

Michael C. Sasso

You can give an “old dog” some new, um, Zoom.

At least according to Michael Sasso, chair of the Fifth District Court of Appeal Judicial Nominating Commission. Sasso, and members of other JNCs, say despite the coronavirus pandemic using Zoom has enabled them to keep up with nominating candidates to Gov. Ron DeSantis for vacancies in Florida’s judicial ranks.

Sasso has served since 2013 on the Fifth DCA JNC and is the current chair, and noted he’s sat in on the interview process that nominated candidates for all but two of the 11 seats on that court.

After that much in-person interaction, he was skeptical about using Zoom to conduct interviews and deliberations for the two most recent openings.

“I’ve had tremendous experience doing JNC interviews and selections,” Sasso said. “With respect to Zoom, I resisted it strongly the first time, because I had never done it before and I’m an old dog.

“Once we did our first Zoom, I became an instant fan.”

“I was definitely concerned that it would really diminish the opportunity to evaluate candidates, but I found it doesn’t. I found it pretty effective,” said Andrew Morgan, chair of the Seventh Circuit JNC.

JNCs were able to maintain public access for interviews, as well as confidentiality when commission members debated their final slate of nominees.

There have been some variations between JNCs. Immediate past Fourth Circuit JNC Chair Patrick Kilbane, said his JNC normally meets in Fourth Circuit Chief Judge Mark Mahon’s chambers, which is big enough for the JNC, interested members of the public, and candidates.

With the pandemic, the JNC used Mahon’s office for members who could attend in person, with the remaining members, the public, and candidates sitting it via Zoom. Using Mahon’s office facilitated technical support from Fourth Circuit Chief IT Officer Mike Smith, Kilbane said.

The first time the JNC used Zoom, three commissioners were at Mahon’s chambers and the rest were remote. The next time, during lull in pandemic cases when the city of Jacksonville eased pandemic restrictions, the entire JNC — socially distanced — was present, but the public and candidates remained remote, he said.

Sasso said the Fifth DCA JNC has held its meetings for the last two vacancies completely online, with candidates, commissioners, and the public all at different locations. The last sessions were held February 1-2.

“[Interviews] are open to the public and we publish the link so anybody can watch,” he said, adding that included three media organizations, one of which continued its practice of recording and posting the interviews online.

The public and media are linked in as viewers only, and can’t ask questions or otherwise participate, Sasso noted.

It’s also easier for almost everyone. Rather than traveling to the Fifth DCA Courthouse in Daytona Beach or a Seminole County court facility from parts of the far-flung district (which includes the Fifth, Seventh, Ninth, 10th, and 18th circuits), attendance was from home, office, or wherever convenient.

“I haven’t polled the judicial candidates that we’ve interviewed, but I can’t imagine any one of them want to sit on I-4 or I-75 or wherever they’re coming from,” Sasso said. “They can stay where they are, they don’t have to come traipsing up to Daytona Beach or the Seminole County Criminal Justice Center.”

There were other smaller advantages. Rather than physically escorting candidates in and out of the meeting room (and past other waiting candidates), applicants are admitted from an electronic waiting room, which is quicker and easier.

“When it comes time to deliberate, that’s really easy. Deliberations are supposed to be purely confidential, so we close down the [public] link and then we open a new link and we only give that to commissioners,” Sasso said.

The pre-interview procedure remains unchanged, he said. Applicants are divided up among the commission members who do background investigations and vetting by phone, plus the normal unsolicited endorsement letters and phone calls.

The technical support, Sasso said, is done by a younger JNC member “who is very techy and really understands Zoom.”

Likewise, Morgan of the Seventh Circuit JNC said a commission member with a mediation practice that has the necessary technical support and capability has hosted the meetings.

Like the Fourth Circuit (and Morgan consulted with Kilbane in working out the Seventh Circuit procedures), some JNC members went to the mediation office and others attended meetings remotely. Likewise, the public and media attended, and interviews were recorded and posted by a media outlet.

Morgan said he wouldn’t mind continuing online operations after the pandemic, but added, “I think at the end of the day, if you asked the applicants I bet they would all prefer to be in person.”

One unexpected benefit, he said, is online meetings have a further reach. He said he saw visitors from Jacksonville and Tallahassee tuning in to the interviews.

“I think there’s a lot of people who think there’s some smoke-filled backroom [for the JNC process] and the reality is it’s very different than that,” Morgan said. “I think it helps build confidence in the JNC process and the appointment of judges, and that is a good thing. The more people know, the better it is.”

Sasso said one thing hasn’t changed for him from in-person to online operations: “Humility.

“There are a lot of really smart lawyers and really smart judges out there,” he said. “When you review some people’s resumes, you find some have had amazing careers, such as service in the military that you don’t know about because they don’t talk about it.

“There are a lot of really good people in judicial service in the state of Florida.”

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