How Florida Courts Are Handling Jury Trials During The Pandemic
With the state reopening, courts that were forced to shut down in March and handle many of their cases remotely via virtual platforms are now able to hold a limited amount of in-person jury trials - with significant changes in protocols and new safety features in place. Several trials have already been completed in multiple Circuits. Each Circuit has taken precautions necessary to safeguard the health and well-being of all people entering the courts, but each is governed by those precautions ordered by the Chief Judge of that Circuit. Thus, while some Circuits are holding in-person jury trials, others have chosen not to do so. Jury trials have successfully taken place in the Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, and Twentieth Circuits.
The effort to return to in-person jury trials has required extensive planning and coordination among judges, clerks, lawyers, and others. “All jurisdictions that have held jury trials and all those preparing to do so have followed prescribed health-protecting protocols,” said Office of the State Courts Administrator (OSCA) Public Information Officer Paul Flemming. Eighth Circuit Chief Judge James Nilon described the planning process as beginning with Zoom meetings with judges, the sheriff’s office, court administrators, clerks, and other court staff, discussing how each space would be used and what the jury room would look.. Each county has a different style of courthouse with different needs and safety requirements. The initial focus was also on shorter trials, prioritizing trials for criminal defendants in custody.
Many of the new safety protocols are similar to those used in businesses across the state. All persons entering courthouses are now required to go through a health screening including a temperature check. Everyone must wear a mask and practice social distancing while inside the courthouses. Some courthouses, including those in the Ninth Circuit, are providing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) packages with an extra mask, hand sanitizer, and safety instructions for their particular courthouse. The Ninth Circuit also provided potential jurors with clear plastic face masks to wear over their noses and mouths so that courtroom participants can see their facial expressions.
Social distancing poses quite the challenge for courthouses. For example, to keep jurors safe, smaller groups of potential jurors will be summoned to ensure easy social distancing. A recent jury call in Lee County involved a group of only 35 people compared to the usual jury pool size of 300 people. This has raised some concerns over whether this lower number constitutes a fair cross-section of the community. Spectators are also being limited, as many courtrooms can only host a few people at a time and some trials are being streamed live, online, to enabler spectators to watch.
Increased sanitation measures have been implemented in all courthouses including installing hand sanitizing stations inside the courtrooms and jury rooms. “There’s deep cleaning of all the places where the jurors will be, picking the biggest courtrooms [for the trials], providing public access through YouTube, making sure hand sanitizers are filled, that social distancing is in place, and all courtroom personnel are healthy,” said Seventh Circuit Chief Judge Raul Zambrano.
Flexibility has been essential to restarting jury trials. Some courthouses have not had large enough spaces to ensure social distancing for jury pools. For example, at the Hendry County Courthouse, jury selection had to be moved from the courthouse to the nearby LaBelle Civic Center. Only the final jury panel chosen came to the actual courthouse. Other courthouses, like the one in Lee County, have large enough courtrooms and jury assembly rooms to keep jurors and court personnel distanced safely.
“We know three things about our trials,” said Chief Judge Donald A. Myers, Jr. of the Ninth Circuit. “They’re going to take longer. They’re going to require more people and resources. And they’re going to take more space than any trial previously has.” Myers said the decision to resume in-person jury trials was prompted by Central Florida’s relatively low COVID-19 statistics and the significant modifications to courthouses and trial procedures that ensure social distancing is observed.. Officials from the Flagler County Courthouse learned from their first trial on August 24 – the first criminal jury trial in Florida since pandemic restrictions were initially put into place – and made adjustments to safety procedures for their next trial.
What has been surprising but refreshing is that jurors seem ready to participate in our Florida justice system. Recent summonses sent to jurors included an additional questionnaire that allowed the recipients to decline service for any reason. Nevertheless, jurors have been showing up to serve and ready to work. If a juror has health issues or has otherwise been negatively impacted by COVID-19, judges have been quick to excuse them from jury service and/or to defer their service. “We’re typically pretty firm about the constraints for excusing a juror. But we have a pretty liberal set of standards when it comes to COVID,” said Judge Myers, citing current protocols put forth by the Florida Supreme Court.
The ongoing pandemic will continue to affect the Florida court system for the foreseeable future. The Florida Workgroup on the Continuity of Court Operations and Proceeding During and After COVID-19 will continue to monitor the situation and will make further recommendations for court operations as it deems necessary. The need to continue the court system’s responsibility of administering justice, while protecting public health and safety, is imperative.