‘The wheels of justice are turning’ in Florida’s federal courts

Chief judges in the state’s three districts participate in a videoconference discussing the response to COVID-19.

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While each of the three U.S. District Courts in Florida is handling the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic independently, there’s a common theme for how the federal judiciary is conducting business.

“The wheels of justice are turning. Attorneys and judges are working as hard as ever,” said Melissa Visconte, chair of The Florida Bar Federal Court Practice Committee, at a Feb. 11 videoconference with the chief judges in each district.

Visconte, along with committee Vice Chair Anitra Raiford, moderated the discussion with Chief Judge of the Northern District Kent Wetherell, Chief Judge of the Middle District Timothy Corrigan and Chief Judge of the Southern District Michael Moore.

Corrigan and Moore said the number of civil cases filed in their districts is down, but still near the volume before COVID-19 forced courts to close. There are fewer criminal cases on the docket 11 months into the shutdown.

Moore attributes the decline in criminal cases to being unable to conduct grand jury proceedings as before the pandemic.

There are fewer filings in the Middle District, possibly because health safety restrictions make it difficult for agents to conduct their investigations now, compared with before March 2020, Corrigan said.

Wetherell said civil filings are down more than 30% in the Northern District and criminal filings are more than 35% below the prepandemic pace.

With remote audio and video technology, more motions and cases are being resolved in his district, Wetherell said, possibly because federal practice is “more a paper practice,” less reliant on in-courtroom proceedings.

“Business is unabated,” he said.

The Pensacola Division has been conducting some jury trials and potential jurors are responding to summonses at the same rate as before the pandemic.

“It’s encouraging to see people still willing to do their service,” Wetherell said.

In Pensacola, courtrooms are modified to accommodate social distancing between jurors. Deliberations are conducted in the jury assembly room on another floor of the courthouse because the jury room adjacent to the courtroom is too small for 14 people.

“It’s a logistical delay, it’s a challenge, but it’s doable,” Wetherell said.

When all the courts are able to resume jury trials, the health and safety of jurors, judges, attorneys and court staff will be the priority.

Corrigan said the Middle District has a COVID Committee comprising five district judges, two magistrate judges and an epidemiologist from the University of Florida.

The committee recommends safety measures including symptom screening questions and temperature checks before entering the building and social distancing inside the courthouse, protocols that are in place in all three districts.

“Our courthouse is open. Don’t be afraid of us,” Moore said.

The first civil jury trial in South Florida since the shutdown started is scheduled to begin May 3.

“We’ll assure potential jurors the courthouse is safe and secure,” Moore said.

The chief judges are unanimous in wanting to return to conducting trials how they were conducted before COVID-19.

“Even though it’s old-fashioned, there’s something still to be said for the people’s business being done in the courtroom,” Corrigan said.

“I hope we get back to people coming back to court. I hope this is just a blip,” Wetherell said.

The Practice Resource Center of The Florida Bar presented the videoconference for CLE credit. More than 300 people registered for the webcast, Visconte said.