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Third Circuit talks pandemic ups, downs

Senior Editor Top Stories
Photo of Dori Foster Morales in office

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There may be less in-person contact among clients, courts, and lawyers in the Third Judicial Circuit because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but there’s more, quicker, and less tense electronic and online communications.

“We’re more connected than ever,” said Rachel Butler, who represents the Third Circuit on the Young Lawyers Division Board of Governors. “The response time from clients and the judiciary and opposing counsel has been a lot quicker. Things have been moving faster; not necessarily on jury trials but nonjury trials are settling.”

“We’re realizing just how human we are.”

Butler was one of the panelists in the September 24 Florida Bar Town Hall meeting, this one for the Third Circuit and the last that Bar President Dori Foster-Morales has held in each of the 20 circuits.

Butler said attending Zoom or Microsoft Teams meetings from home can be less tense than girding for court, especially when kids or pets can make unscheduled cameo appearances.

We’re a little more relaxed in seeing that we’re all human,” she said.

Participants at the Third Circuit gathering were significantly different in a couple ways from those at other town halls. Asked if more than half their work was done remotely, 56% said no — the only circuit in the state where that number exceeded 43%. Fifty-five percent said their stress levels had increased during the pandemic, but that was the lowest for any of the town hall meetings. Some jurisdictions had 80% or more reporting higher stress.

Which doesn’t mean there hasn’t been stress. Third Circuit Bar Association President Travis Koon said an employee in his office tested positive for the coronavirus, leading to a shutdown of his office for a couple weeks and testing of all personnel.

In addition, when the shutdowns first happened, Koon, who primarily does criminal defense, saw a massive drop in business as law enforcement generally stopped doing arrests for anything but felonies and major crimes.

The response, he said, was to make sure office personnel were “exercising, getting outside, doing yoga, running, doing something outdoors at least 30 minutes a day to get the heart rate up. You destress and don’t think about life.”

Like most other circuits, town hall participants said technology is helping meet clients and move court cases.

Chief Judge Mark Feagle said some criminal jury trials will be resuming in a couple weeks and that online hearings have generally functioned well with one slight exception.

“Objections,” Feagle said. “By the time an attorney voices an objection, the litigant has begun to answer the question and maybe finished. They can’t hear me. I’m waving at them sometimes to get their attention.”

But overall, “it’s beneficial for our circuit and it’s beneficial for our state,” the judge said. “The attorneys have been very well prepared, it’s apparent they do have trial runs with their clients. Clients represented by attorneys have always been able to participate. Attorneys reach out to judges to find out how they want evidence and exhibits submitted.

“We’re not 100% successful. There are times the litigants, primarily the pro se litigants, are unable to connect.”

Jennifer Kuyrkendall Griffin, a magistrate for the Third Circuit, said virtual hearings have helped pro se parties, except in parts of the circuit without uniform cell phone coverage. She and Feagle said case managers work with lawyers and pr se parties to ensure exhibits — which can be one of the trickiest parts of online hearings — and other issues are resolved before the hearing begins, although in one case Griffin said technological limitations required her to show exhibits on camera to both plaintiff and defendant.

She noted the Solo and Small Firm Section has an October 21 CLE for its members on submitting and handling exhibits and evidence at virtual hearings.

Participants said despite the challenges, there has been some bright spots from pandemic life.

“I’ve gained a greater appreciation for school teachers, in having to homeschool my own for a brief time,” said Third Circuit State Attorney-elect John Durret. “There’s a greater appreciation for all things, once they’re taken away. I’m looking forward to getting back to the way it was.”

Griffin said that technological changes, such as virtual hearings, that would have taken years to set up and be accepted are now the norm is one benefit. Another, more personal, is that she can take a break from her home office, “go downstairs and sit on the floor for 15 minutes [with her 3-year-old daughter] and play dolls…. I will cherish that always.”

Feagle said better technology is one benefit and another is the underscoring that, “It takes a team. Everybody understands that now. If you don’t, you’ve been living under a rock. It takes a team to move these cases forward, whether it’s our judicial assistants, our clerks, the attorneys, or law enforcement. The more people that understand that, and they have, it enables us to move forward. There’s been some good that has come out of all of this.”

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