Fla. Courts Launch Remote Civil Jury Trial Pilot Program

By Dorothy Atkins
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Law360 (May 22, 2020, 3:37 PM EDT) -- Florida Chief Justice Charles Canady has ordered the creation of a pilot program on holding state civil jury trials via remote technology and has also set up a new four-phase process for reopening state courts following the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Under the pilot program announced Thursday, the 17-member advisory team, dubbed the COVID-19 workgroup and chaired by Judge Lisa Taylor Munyon of the Ninth Judicial Circuit in Orlando, will develop requirements for participating in the program. The workgroup plans to select up to five Florida trial circuits to participate in the pilot, which will only hold remote trials in civil cases under the condition that all parties consent to participation.

The order notes that since all jury trials in Florida were halted on March 13 to combat the spread of COVID-19, there are a backlog of cases heading to trial.

On Thursday, the justice also issued a separate order that establishes new health and safety protocols to be used as the courts expand their court operations.

The protocols outline four phases for reopening the courts to the public, and they amend a previous order, called SCAO20-23, that established emergency court procedures during the coronavirus pandemic.

Phase 1, which the state courts are operating now, essentially brings courthouse proceedings to a halt. Under Phase 2, the courts would authorize limited in-person contact and court proceedings, while taking additional protective measures against the COVID-19 virus.

Phase 3 authorizes in-person contact more broadly, and Phase 4 opens the courts fully when COVID-19 no longer presents a significant risk, according to the order.

In order for state courts to enter Phase 2, the order says, local rules have to permit the activity and the courts must have no reported COVID-19 cases in the courthouse within two weeks, or courthouses have to be deep-cleaned the if cases have occurred.

Additionally, the rate of COVID-19 cases reported in the local community must show at least two weeks of improvements, and adequate testing programs must be in place, the order says, adding that any other building occupants and justice system partners also must be consulted on reopening.

The four-phase reopening process comes after Justice Canady earlier this month extended for the third time the suspension of jury trials in Florida state courts until July 2. Justice Canady also expanded the list of court proceedings that will be held remotely during the coronavirus pandemic, with the goal of keeping "courts operating to the fullest extent consistent with public safety."

Since then, bench trials, motion hearings, arraignments in county court misdemeanor cases, hearings in juvenile delinquency cases, hearings in noncriminal traffic infractions and case management hearings were allowed to be held using remote technology.

Earlier this week, the densely populated Miami-Dade and Broward counties, which have remained largely closed, joined the rest of the state in lifting restrictions put in place to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

As of Friday, the number of known COVID-19 cases in Florida was 49,451, including nonresidents, an increase of 776 cases compared to the day before, according to the Florida Department of Health. The state also reported 2,190 virus-related deaths as of Friday, which was up by 46 from those reported Thursday.

--Additional reporting by Carolina Bolado. Editing by Gemma Horowitz.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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