The 4th Judicial Circuit conducted two remote civil jury trials to a binding verdict, one in August and one in September.
The circuit, comprising Clay, Duval and Nassau counties, was one of five circuits selected by the state Supreme Court to participate in a remote trial pilot project.
The trial in August was the first concluded in the U.S. since the COVID-19 health crisis forced courthouses across the nation to close in March.
“My goal for the Fourth Judicial Circuit’s remote civil jury trial pilot project was to create the look, feel and sound of an in-person courtroom remotely, demanding the same decorum and respect for the totally remote civil jury trial proceedings as inspired by in-person civil jury trials in that sacred place known as the courtroom,” Circuit Judge Bruce Anderson wrote in a report submitted Oct. 2 to state Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady.
Anderson led the 4th Circuit’s workgroup, aided by Administrative Judge Waddell Wallace and staff from the court information technology department and Duval County Clerk of Courts. Additional support was provided by volunteers from the Jacksonville Chapter of the American Board of Trial Advocates and Chester Bedell American Inn of Courts.
While jurors surveyed after the trials responded positively about their remote experience, some of the people who work in courtrooms every day have reservations about remote jury trials compared with in-person proceedings.
Mike Smith, court technology officer for the 4th Circuit, said the remote trial process was a challenge for all involved.
“Although IT skills of the attorneys, court reporters, clerk of courts and other participants were better than expected, a long-term permanent scenario must include all stakeholders having training prior to the day of the jury selection,” Smith said in the report.
Smith recommends that The Florida Bar CLE program incorporate a minimum 1-hour requirement for video teleconferencing, marking up exhibits in video teleconferencing and general use such as muting-unmuting and changing virtual backgrounds.
Smith also said additional court IT staff would have to be hired to expand the remote jury trial program beyond the pilot project.
Speaking as the special magistrate for the remote trials, attorney Corrine Hodak also recommends IT education for participants and agrees that court resources such as IT personnel would have to be reallocated if the program were to expand.
“Impediments to the system include the attitude of attorneys and perhaps Judges, the fear of change and lack of resources and funding. With no other viable option than to wait an indefinite time for the possibility of an in-person trial, the remote civil jury trial system provides an option for some cases. Further study is needed to evaluate the system in longer and more complex trials,” Hodak said.
She also reported as president of ABOTA Jacksonville, an organization comprising an equal number of plaintiffs’ and defense attorneys whose mission is dedicated to the preservation of the constitutional right to a jury trial.
“As the 2020 President of ABOTA-Jacksonville, it is my obligation to report that our membership strongly favors the return of in-person jury trials and opposes mandatory remote civil jury trials,” Hodak said in the report.
The clerk’s office reports that while the process to summon jurors can be replicated for remote trials, expanding beyond the pilot program would present challenges.
“Due to the current manual nature of many of these processes, the Clerk’s Jury Services team would be stretched thin trying to support multiple remote trials at once. Taken one step further, the Clerk believes it would be problematic to attempt to support in-person jury trials and remote trials simultaneously given current staffing levels, which would be difficult to supplement in the current budget environment,” said Public Records Department Senior Manager Brian Corrigan in the report.
“Replicating a fully remote process for additional jury trials requires a substantial commitment by the judicial stakeholders in any Circuit, and in the opinion of this reporter an all-remote process would not be scalable for wholesale implementation,” Anderson said.
However, “based upon the feedback of the participating stakeholders, and our experience conducting this pilot program, it is my opinion that a hybrid process consisting of a remote jury selection and an in-person jury trial would be a workable solution that balances the competing concerns of public health and the need to continue the civil justice system,” Anderson concluded.
Visit jud4.org for links to the 159-page final report and videos of the remote jury trials.