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Ninth Judicial Circuit survives the ‘season of fear’

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'Our two watchwords in the Ninth Circuit have been grace and flexibility'

Chief Judge Donald A. Myers, Jr.The Ninth Judicial Circuit adapted well to the COVID-19 pandemic, conducting nearly 60,000 remote hearings since jury trials were suspended in March, said Chief Judge Donald A. Myers, Jr.

“Our primary backbone is on Cisco, but our users have the choice of Teams, Zoom, or WebEx,” he said. “I’m encouraged because our experience has been that the lawyers have adapted very quickly.”

Judge Myers was addressing President Dori Foster-Morales at a September 14 Virtual Town Hall, part of her 20-circuit listening tour that she and other Bar leaders are using to guide the Bar’s response to the health crisis.

However, Judge Myers said, some practitioners are adapting more quickly than others, and glitches still occur.

“If there was anything we might suggest as fertile ground for improvement it would be preparation,” he said. “Prepare, prepare, prepare. Know your platform…pay attention to things like the name that shows up on the screen.”

To make sure pro se litigants could cross the digital divide, Judge Myers said the Ninth Circuit set up public computer terminals on the first floor of the Orange County Courthouse. So far, it appears to be working, he said.

“We are conducting more than 90% of domestic violence injunctions through remote technology, which is mostly pro se litigants,” he said. “The Teams and Zoom links have all been user friendly and very accessible.”

As she does at every virtual town hall, Foster-Morales assured participants that their responses to anonymous Zoom polls, as well as concerns and suggestions, would be forwarded to the COVID-19 Pandemic Recovery Task Force.

Chaired by President-elect Michael Tanner, the 13-member panel is working on a wide range of projects, everything from potential rule amendments to a newly designed COVID-19 webpage available on The Florida Bar website.

“There’s a tab to court orders and links to the Florida Supreme Court, DCA, the latest news, there are member benefits and also, opportunities for employment,” said Ninth Circuit board member Julia Frey.

Foster-Morales also urged participants to take advantage of the new Florida Lawyers Helpline. Staffed by licensed professionals and confidential, the helpline — 1-833-FL1-WELL — is a gateway to free mental-health counseling, childcare, senior care, financial counseling, and a host of other services.

“If you had cancer, you would see an oncologist,” Foster-Morales said. “There’s nothing wrong with getting help.”

According to the results of the anonymous poll, more than 80% of respondents would welcome using remote technology to conduct non-evidentiary and evidentiary hearings after the pandemic subsides.

Myers said he agrees.

“Consistently what I’ve heard is that the video conferencing hearings can be effective,” he said. “I can’t imagine where we see a context where a pre-trial conference goes ahead in person.”

With 36% of respondents reporting a reduction in income, stress has been a major factor, participants acknowledged.

Brandon Sapp, president of the Young Lawyers Section of the Orange County Bar Association, said beginning lawyers are worried about their careers.

“A lot of them are worried about keeping their jobs,” he said. “Firms aren’t going to get rid of a partner before they get rid of an associate.”

To help alleviate the stress, his group is sponsoring informal Zoom sessions, he said.

“Every Wednesday, we have a virtual happy hour,” he said. “We check in. For the first 30 minutes, we just run around the Zoom session, how are you feeling? And people love it.”

The lawyers and judges of the Ninth Circuit have weathered a “season of fear” by observing a simple credo, Judge Myers said.

“Our two watchwords in the Ninth Circuit have been grace and flexibility,” he said. “The ingenuity of judges and lawyers working together to make things happen has exceeded all expectations.”

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