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Town Halls visit the panhandle

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First Circuit is in Phase II; judges are hearing in-person criminal proceedings

Chief Judge John MillerWith a determination reflective of its large military population, the First Judicial Circuit is using teamwork and remote technology to soldier through the COVID-19 pandemic.

That’s the message Northwest Florida lawyers, judges, court administrators, and voluntary bar leaders delivered to President Dori Foster-Morales during an August 19 Virtual Town Hall.

“It’s been truly awe inspiring for me to see the passion, the cooperation, and the spirit of the people in the First Circuit,” said Chief Judge John Miller.

Dori Foster-Morales The noon session was part of a 20-circuit, virtual listening tour that Foster-Morales said will be used to collect data and ideas. Bar leaders plan to use the feedback to create or expand services, programs, and benefits that will help members deal with the crisis.

“This afternoon, we’re focusing on how the judicial system is adapting its operations, and what more the Bar can do to assist its members,” Foster-Morales said.

She told participants that their suggestions and survey responses will be shared with a 13-member COVID-19 Pandemic Recovery Task Force headed by President-elect Michael Tanner.

“We’re already receiving some good feedback from the membership and are pursuing the various sections for input,” said board member Jeremy Branning, who sits on the task force.

Judge Miller said the First Circuit is in Phase II, which means judges are conducting in-person proceedings for criminal matters, but are required to use social distancing and protective gear.

Escambia County Circuit Court Judge Jan Shackelford said the protocols can be tiring.

“I’m in my chambers right now, so my mask is off,” she said. “But when we have hearings in the courtroom, I’m wearing a mask, everyone is wearing a mask, and you’re yelling practically to be understood.”

The first circuit is not scheduling civil jury trials for the rest of the year.

Without the prospect of jury trials, litigants are showing less willingness to settle, Judge Miller said. But meanwhile, he said, remote technology has been a blessing for moving cases along, adding that the legal community in Northwest Florida has adapted quickly.

But there are drawbacks, Judge Miller acknowledged, with background noise often a problem, or litigants suffering from poor connections.

Remote hearings tend to work best when the litigants gather at an attorney’s office, where they can shuffle in and out of quiet conference rooms reserved for remote testimony, Judge Miller said.

“So far, overall, I would have to say that Zoom is great, and I would have to grade it as an ‘A’,” he said.

Okaloosa County Circuit Court Judge William Stone said many of the challenges can be overcome.

“The two words I would say are test and rehearse,” he said. “If there’s a problem with your client’s camera, they should know it before they take the stand to testify.”

Remote technology has made it easier to schedule court reporters who are sometimes in short supply, Judge Stone said. Court reporters like the way Zoom posts the identity of every speaker, he said.

“They get the visual cues when they’re taking a record,” he said. “It takes what was a very thin resource and creates a much bigger benefit for everyone, and that was an unexpected result.”

But Zoom doesn’t help rural residents who are plagued by lack of cellular service, or restrictive service plans, said Walton County Circuit Judge Kelvin Wells.

“I agree with Judge Miller, when they have the equipment, remote is good,” Judge Wells said. “But nothing can make up for the old school.”

With surveys showing that a lack of childcare has been a problem for lawyers, Foster-Morales asked if judges would show more flexibility if a lawyer raises the issue.

“I’m always open to hearing that,” Judge Stone said. “From my point of view, I’ll work with anyone I can.”

Florida Lawyers HelplineFoster-Morales also urged participants to take advantage of the new Florida Lawyers Helpline, a confidential, toll-free line staffed by mental-health professionals who serve as a gateway to free mental-health counseling, financial counseling, elder and child-care services, and a host of other resources (833-FL1-WELL or 833-351-9355).

“When you have cancer, you see a doctor,” Foster-Morales said. “There’s nothing wrong with getting help.”

Participants were also reminded The Florida Bar has built a comprehensive COVID-19 web page that offers the latest news, from Supreme Court orders, CLE, and practice management guides to legal aid and consumer resources. “COVID-19, the New Coronavirus, Information and Resources,” may be accessed at floridabar.org/covid19 or through a banner at the top of floridabar.org.

Featured prominently are links to the latest from the Bar News, as well as to all of the trial and appellate court websites so members can check for orders and to the Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers site so members may check their county clerk’s page. It also links to federal acts and guidance from relevant federal agencies, and links to other federal agencies and their updates that may assist Florida Bar members.

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