Several factors make Florida especially vulnerable to COVID-19. Florida is the third largest state in the country in population. About 1 in 5 Floridians is over 65 years old. Disney World attracts tourists from all over the world year-round. Spring breakers crowded Florida beaches in March as the pandemic escalated. Several of the initial positive COVID-19 cases were individuals who worked at Fort Lauderdale’s Port Everglades – one of the busiest cruise ship ports in the world. At least two cruise ships originally destined for other countries that had known positive cases have disembarked in Florida this month. Dozens of vessels remain at sea. In less than six weeks, Florida went from having one confirmed coronavirus case to over 18,000.
Governor DeSantis’ declaration of a state of emergency on March 9 and President Trump’s declaration of a national emergency on March 13 triggered Florida state and federal courts to issue a patchwork of orders. This initial wave of orders ranged from prohibiting high risk individuals from entering courthouses, to postponing jury trials until the end of March.
The progression of the orders issued by the Florida Supreme Court is telling as to what can be expected in the legal system of Florida in the coming months.
On March 13, the Court suspended all grand jury proceedings, jury selection proceedings, and criminal and civil jury trials through March 27, 2020. The Order also granted chief judges for each judicial circuit authority to establish temporary procedures for the use of technology to the maximum extent possible for conducting proceedings remotely.
On March 24, the Court extended the jury trial suspensions to April 17, 2020, and suspended the in-person requirement for swearing in witnesses in depositions and other legal testimony. Less than two weeks later, on April 6, the Florida Supreme Court again extended the suspension on jury trials. This time until May 29, 2020.
So, in the best-case scenario, Florida courts will be lifting coronavirus-related limitations on Monday, June 1, 2020. In the meantime, Judges across the state have been thinking of creative ways to move their dockets and avoid substantial backlogs when courts re-open.
Most civil divisions have opened additional special set hearing time slots due to cancellations of jury trials. These used to be especially hard to come by and may now help parties resolve issues that will lead to settlements. Non-jury trials, evidentiary hearings, motion calendar hearings, status conferences, pretrial conferences and mediations are continuing remotely. Judges have also taken a strong stance against postponing or canceling depositions, requesting that parties conduct these via video conferences.
Law firms and court personnel experienced growing pains in the first weeks of the closures. However, now that adaptations have taken hold, many hope to carry some of these advancements when courts reopen. The question then becomes, what will Florida dockets look like when that happens?
Constitutional issues will ensure that the primary focus of courts will be to pursue criminal trials when they reopen. These cases will flood the dockets initially but will likely level off. As the coronavirus hit, arrests and crime incidents have dropped sharply across the country—as much as 92% in some jurisdictions. With less crimes being committed, there will be fewer criminal trials.
Additionally, a substantial number of civil jury trials consist of personal injury cases. A portion of ongoing cases should resolve during the closures, and new claims may stay low as millions are staying home and avoiding certain activities. To push active cases, parties can, in some districts, have judges conduct mock trials via video conferencing software like Zoom.
There is no way to tell when jury trials will begin taking place again, and it is possible jury trials will look different. Until a coronavirus vaccine or treatment is development, jurors will likely not be gathering in jury rooms. Plus, if COVID-19 follows the pattern of the 1918 flu pandemic, future waves of the virus may force future closures. This will require thoughtful adaptation.