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While much has changed, other pandemic accommodations may be necessary

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Florida Bar Town Halls held in the 10th and 20th circuits

Dori Foster-Morales at the 10th Circuit Town Hall meetingJudges and lawyers in the 10th Circuit have made great strides in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic but the greatest challenge may be not knowing what’s next.

“The biggest concern now is anticipating the unknowns,” said 10th Circuit Chief Judge Ellen Masters at the September 23 Town Hall meeting hosted by Bar President Dori Foster-Morales. “We don’t know how long this is going to last, what kind of technologies we’re going to need.”

Later at the second Town Hall meeting held the same day, 20th Circuit Chief Judge Michael McHugh said it’s possible that while in-person jury trials may be resumed in socially distanced courtrooms, jury selection could be a remote, online process.

McHugh was responding to a question from Foster-Morales about remote jury selection.

McHugh, who chairs the civil court committee on the Supreme Court’s Workgroup on the Continuity of Court Operations and Proceedings During and After COVID-19, said that’s an option under consideration. He noted in the first civil jury trial held in Miami-Dade County after the pandemic shut down most in-court proceedings the jury selection was done remotely, although the actual trial was done in person. Duval County shortly thereafter did a second civil trial where everything was done remotely.

“It was a great success, it went very smoothly,” McHugh said. “All the feedback we got from that…the jury selection portion, everyone loved.”

Judge Kevin Abdoney, the chief administrative judge for the 10th Circuit criminal division, said criminal jury trials are scheduled to begin the week of October 5.

“The plan is to handle some simpler cases so we can determine what all of the issues will be,” he said. “The backlog is sort of a nightmare that none of us want to think about right now. I think we’ll have a better idea a few weeks into jury trials on what’s going to be involved with those in terms of how to best use the resources we have…in order to minimize whatever backlog we have.”

He quoted the judge who is overseeing the resumption of the jury trials as observing, “For every question answered, 10 more questions arise.”

Judges and lawyers said they expect an expanded use of electronic hearings to remain after the pandemic eases.

Tenth Circuit Judge James Yancey, who administers the family law courts, said remote hearings have boosted attendance by pro se parties and “some of the pre se parties are better in accessing the virtual system than are lawyers….

“Generally, it seems a much better system. As long as I can see someone at the other end and I treat them like they’re in the courtroom, there are no issues there.”

The conversations at the Virtual Town Hall Meetings — part of Foster-Morales’ effort to hold one for each of the state’s 20 circuits — covered familiar ground of judges, lawyers, and staff staggered by pandemic shutdowns and impacts but using technology to help recover while dealing with working at home and less human contact.

Fifty-seven percent of those at the 10th Circuit meeting and 60% at the 20th Circuit said they are doing at least half of their work from home — a percentage Foster-Morales said has been dropping as more lawyers are getting back to their offices.

In the 10th Circuit, 33% cited their top concern as finding a work and home-life balance, while 26% said that in the 20th Circuit. Isolation was the second biggest problem, at 23% in the 10th and 24% in the 20th. As for overall stress, 83% in the 10th Circuit and 73% in the 20th Circuit said the pandemic has increased the strain in their lives. Around nine in 10 lawyers in both jurisdictions said they have not changed their practice areas since the pandemic and around two-thirds said their income has not fallen.

Judges said technology, including the increasing ability to have remote hearings, has helped keep cases moving, and both chief judges had similar advice for lawyers.

“Each judge has a virtual courtroom and that is through Microsoft Teams,” said Masters, and she encouraged lawyers to use that connection to help their cases.

“Check your judge’s website for practices and procedures,” McHugh said. “We try to keep them relatively uniform in our circuit, but there are some nuances. Everything runs more smoothly when everyone knows what to expect.”

Local bar presidents participating in the meetings said they are working on ways to help their members, including with the isolation the pandemic can bring.

Travis Hayes, president of the Collier County Bar Association, said he’s looking at a reduced attendance, socially distanced in-person meeting.

“I’m trying to get back to some sense of normality, doing it in a safe manner,” he said.

Lee County Bar Association President Blake Hampton said his organization is exploring hybrid meetings that allow people to attend virtually or in-person while social distancing.

“I love the idea of hybrids,” Foster-Morales said. “I think for a long period of time we have to provide options. We don’t want people to be uncomfortable.”

The participants generally agreed that as much as things have changed, more accommodations will be coming.

“The whole process is a balancing act,” McHugh said. “We have health concerns and we can’t put people at risk. That’s priority one. Then we have an obligation as the judiciary and as a Bar to move our clients’ cases forward, that the wheels of justice continue to move forward…. We have to balance and make determinations of what’s the best way to proceed.”

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