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Proposal aims to make the greater use of remote technology in court permanent

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Fourth 4DCA using Zoom

How do Florida’s state courts conduct legal hearings during the coronavirus pandemic? Here is an example from Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach. In April, the Fourth District Court heard cases by video using teleconferencing software.

 A retired 11th Circuit judge and five South Florida lawyers are proposing an amendment to the Rules of Judicial Administration that is designed to promote the greater use of remote technology.

Miami attorney Brett Schlacter, a group spokesman, said the proposed changes were inspired by the greater efficiencies judges and lawyers have experienced as courts maximize the use of video conferencing and other technologies to limit exposure to COVID-19.

“I’ve talked to probably 50 lawyers, and everyone is saying the pandemic sucks, but remote depositions, remote hearings, are great,” he said.

The proposed amendment to Rule 2.530 Communication Equipment was suggested by retired Circuit Judge Scott Silverman, Schlacter said.

In a letter dated June 8 to the Rules of Judicial Administration Committee, the group describes the proposal this way:

“The proposed amendment would differ from current Rule as it would empower a judge [to] conduct their uniform motion calendar entirely through the use of video conferencing or other electronic communications equipment.”

It continues: “A judge could also elect to utilize the same electronic communication equipment for any motion hearing, pretrial conference, status conference, evidentiary hearing, bench trial and jury trial. The use of communication equipment would occur on a divisional basis and be entirely on the discretion of the division’s judge.”

In addition to Judge Silverman and Schlacter, the letter is signed by Jose Ignacio Leon and Moisés A. Saltiel, both of Coral Gables, Anthony H. Quackenbush of Ft. Lauderdale, and Ashley M. Allison of Bay Harbor Islands.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady on May 22 issued an order authorizing a pilot program that would permit the use of remote technology in civil jury trials on a voluntary basis. The Supreme Court’s COVID-19 Workgroup selected the Fourth, Seventh, Ninth, 11th, and 20th circuits to participate in the pilot.

The pilot circuits were initially required to report their results to the Office of State Courts Administrator no later than July 31. But the chief justice issued a June 8 order extending the deadline to October 2.

Schlacter, a personal injury lawyer with an insurance litigation practice, acknowledges that many lawyers have concerns about the use of remote technology for jury trials.

“I would not want to try a jury trial via Zoom, but I’m not opposed to it in certain circumstances,” he said. “I think traditional jury trials will always be here.”

But Schlacter said remote technology holds too much promise to put back on the shelf after health experts determine the pandemic is no longer a threat.

Schlacter said remote technology has reduced a four-hour process of fighting traffic and hunting for a parking space to complete a simple motion to compel into a one-hour task he can complete online.

Remote technology is more than a money saver for clients and more than a time saver for judges and lawyers, Schlacter said. Less travel means a cleaner environment, he said. There are health and wellness dividends, too, Schlacter said.

“I’m a father of two and I’m able to spend more time with my children because I don’t have to rush out of my house and sit two and half hours in traffic,” he said. “It’s been very beneficial to me, especially in my already very stressed life.”

Krys Godwin, the Bar’s director of legal publications and staff liaison to the RJA Committee, promised in an email that she would forward the proposal to a subcommittee.

“This is a rule that has been the subject of great review and discussion for over a year by both the Rules of Judicial Administration Committee and other pertinent committees, specifically in regard to remote testimony,” Godwin wrote. “A packet of proposed rule amendments is scheduled to be reviewed and voted on by the pertinent committees in the upcoming June meetings.”

Schlacter said he is confident that the courts will one day emerge from the pandemic having learned a valuable lesson.

“Lawyers tend to be behind in technology and very hesitant to change,” he said. “But I think this is a perfect opportunity to springboard to a complete transformation of the legal system.”

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