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While the courts work toward resuming jury trials, chief justice urges patience

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Supreme Court Justice Charles T. CanadyAlmost five months to the day after COVID-19 forced the suspension of jury trials, Chief Justice Charles Canady urged Florida’s criminal trial bar to remain patient.

Appearing via Zoom on the Criminal Law Section’s August 14 edition of “Connect: A Criminal Law Conversation Series,” Justice Canady said jury trials are unlikely to resume in the foreseeable future.

“I wish I could tell you that this is going to be over by the end of the year, but we don’t know, and anybody that tells you they know is kidding about that,” he said.

The growth in confirmed COVID-19 cases statewide appears to be slowing, but fatalities continue to climb, Justice Canady said. On the day he spoke, the daily death toll reached 228.

“Right now, things in general are trending in the right direction, other than the death rate, which is a lagging indicator, and obviously a very serious thing,” he said. “But we don’t know that that trend is going to continue, and that’s the challenge that we face.”

Earlier in the week, the Supreme Court updated protocols that chief judges must follow as part of a phased, regionally based plan for resuming normal operations, Justice Canady said.

“Part of the framework that I have established as chief justice gives some flexibility to the chief judges to deal with circumstances based on local conditions,” he said. “So I do fully expect at some point, there will be jury trials going on in some counties in Florida when there won’t be jury trials going on in others.”

But even then, Justice Canady said, jury trials would require extensive use of protective equipment as well as social distancing, which courthouses aren’t designed to accommodate.

“It becomes apparent that the capacity of our facilities is going to be limited,” he said. “That’s a challenge that’s just the reality.”

Some circuits participating in a voluntary, remote civil jury pilot program are reporting success, Justice Canady said, most notably, Florida’s first fully remote, binding civil jury trial that concluded last week in the Fourth Circuit.

But remote technology hasn’t won many converts in the criminal arena, Justice Canady said.

“There’s not much of a taste for trying to do any element of criminal jury trials remotely,” he said. “Lawyers want to be able to see the faces of the jurors, not only during voir dire, but during the trial, I know I would.”

The chief justice reminded the audience that a Supreme Court work group headed by Ninth Judicial Circuit Judge Lisa Munyon is continuing to work on ways to resume normal court operations, and he urged Criminal Law Section members to offer suggestions.

“So let me say this, and I know this is not going to give you much comfort, but we are intently focused on how we can get back to having jury trials,” he said.

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