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Report finds a ‘hybrid’ approach to jury trials ‘is a realistic and feasible option’

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Judge AndersonIt took a small army of judges, court administrators, Duval Court Clerk staff, IT managers — and ABOTA Jacksonville and Chester Bedell Inn of Court volunteers — to design Florida’s first fully remote, binding civil jury trial, according to an October 27 report.

Fourth Circuit Judge Bruce Anderson writes in the report that the project met his goal “to create the look, feel and sound of an in-person courtroom remotely,” while respecting decorum.

But he concludes that a fully remote trial is too resource-intensive to serve as a practical solution for solving an estimated 990,000 case-backlog that has accrued since COVID-19 forced the suspension of jury trials in March.

“Replicating a fully remote process for additional jury trials requires a substantial commitment by the judicial stakeholders in any circuit, and in the opinion of this reporter, an all-remote process would not be scalable for wholesale implementation,” Judge Anderson wrote.

The answer lies somewhere in the middle, he said.

A “hybrid” approach combining remote jury selection with an in-person trial “is a realistic and feasible option” if the “restrictions of the pandemic persist.”

The project began June 4 with the first meeting of a Fourth Circuit work group. The group was formed after the Fourth Circuit became one of five circuits that Chief Justice Charles Canady authorized to participate in a voluntary, remote civil jury pilot program.

The Fourth Circuit work group consisted of court technology officers Mike Smith, James Muse, Patrick Estalilla, and Lawrence Ashley; Brian Corrigan of the Duval County Clerk’s Office; Corinne Hodak, an attorney and 2020 president of ABOTA Jacksonville, who was later appointed special magistrate; and Angelo Patacca, an attorney and ABOTA member.

Chief Circuit Judge Mark Mahon and Civil Division Administrative Judge Waddell Wallace supported the project, according to the report.

Fourth Circuit TrialAfter choosing the Zoom platform already in use for remote hearings and other proceedings, the team immediately identified documents that needed to be created, including a “Remote Pre-trial Stipulation,” a “Remote Pre-trial Checklist,” and a “Remote Pre-trial Order.”

Other documents were created when the need was identified.

A series of mock trials was conducted, with the team identifying new challenges and solutions after each session.

As a result, IT staff designed a virtual courtroom background that lent dignity to the proceedings. A screen saver with a countdown clock was created to keep jurors engaged during recesses and sidebars. Three PowerPoint presentations were designed to help jurors become familiar with the Zoom platform after an instructional video proved ineffective. An existing government software program was repurposed to give jurors the ability to examine documents placed into evidence, or communicate with the court.

Court IT workers were trained to serve as “remote bailiffs” and Hodak was appointed to serve as a magistrate, largely to help the presiding judge observe jurors. CVN (Court View Network) was chosen to stream most of the proceedings so that they would be available for public view.

According to the report, “jurors were, for the most part, attentive during jury selection.” However, an older man laid down during jury selection, but was quickly back in his chair, according to the report.

“Another juror candidly admitted he was working on a school project on another screen during jury selection. These were minor occurrences that were quickly and smoothly addressed without embarrassment,” according to the report.

Recruiting willing parties wasn’t easy, Judge Anderson reported. Some attorneys reported that clients were hesitant to participate in an experiment. But two comparatively non-complex cases were identified and the parties agreed to participate.

The first, Cayla Griffin v. Albanese Enterprises, Inc. D/B/A Paradise, involved a Jacksonville woman who was struck and injured by two nightclub bouncers. The defendant did not participate in the trial and jurors were tasked with awarding damages.

Jury selection began August 6 and a one-day trial concluded August 10.

The second trial, K.B. Mathis P.A. v. Agatha Argyros, involved a fee dispute between an attorney and his former client in a criminal matter. Jury selection began September 29 and the trial concluded October 1.

Summonses were issued with a letter from the chief judge describing the remote jury pilot program. Jurors were instructed to login to the clerk’s website and respond to qualification questions.

Remote jury selection works remarkably well, according to the report.

“The Clerk’s Office noted that the response rate (or yield) for jurors to the remote jury summonses was higher than the average response rate experienced for in-person jury summonses before the pandemic,” the report states.

Also, “in developing the jury selection process, the CTOs and the clerk’s office created an electronic questionnaire process that was completed before the jury selection process — a process that allowed the court and the trial attorneys to efficiently and effectively focus their voir dire questioning once the panel of potential jurors ‘entered’ the remote courtroom.”

For the project, the Fourth Circuit issued 150 summonses, “in an abundance of caution.”

Jury yield hovered between 30% to 40% before the pandemic, according to the Office of State Courts Administrator and the Duval County Clerk of Courts. But 87 recipients responded to the remote jury summonses, or about 58%, according to the report. Fifty-four jurors filled out a qualifications form and 33 were excused or deferred before filling out the juror questionnaire.

“Of the remaining persons, 40 filled out the juror questionnaire. Fourteen people did not submit or complete a juror questionnaire. Thirty-seven appeared for jury selection,” according to the report. “Three were excused. A total of six were excused for hardship. A few jurors did not appear for jury duty that had not filled out the Juror Questionnaire and they were put back in the jury pool.”

In the report, Hodak, who served as special magistrate, notes that the trials required a judge, a special magistrate, three IT court officers serving as remote bailiffs, and three clerks — although there were often five clerks in the courtroom.

However, with more experience, the number of personnel can be reduced, she predicted.

“Jurors were mostly attentive,” she reported, and most of the security concerns expressed by civil trial attorneys about remote jury trials can be overcome.

“If we weren’t before, we are now a tech nation,” she wrote. “The court system has been a leader in making changes to meet COVID-19 challenges, using technology for remote hearings, remote bench trials, and other matters. To cling to old practices incompatible with present realities is understandable, but does it benefit the citizens who look to the court to have their disputes settled?”

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