Deadly Coronavirus Threatens Order in Florida Courts
Miami Trial Attorney Offers Strategies to Keep Judicial System Functioning Amidst Pandemic
The deadly coronavirus pandemic may have slowed down many government services throughout Florida, but not all court proceedings in Jacksonville. For one forward-thinking judge, business is as usual.
Each day, David Gooding puts on his robe like he always does, but instead of walking into a courtroom, he fires up his desktop computer from the comforts of a den inside his home. His Honor hasn’t been in the Duval County courthouse since the middle of March, but he has been convening court seven days a week from a remote system connected to his home computer.
Attorneys, their clients, and witnesses communicate with Gooding from a distance as well. The remote video conferencing system is making it possible for the circuit court judge to maintain a level of service to the public at a time when other businesses have come to a screeching halt.
While Gooding has been able to preside over adoption hearings, first-appearances for juveniles charged with criminal offenses and other proceedings in front of his home computer, many aspects of the criminal justice system have not been immune to the pandemic. The National Center for State Courts reports at least 27 states are under wraps to stop jury trials or limit the number of people who can enter a courtroom.
“Closing our courts to limit the spread of COVID19 was and remains an essential step to protect our community,” said attorney Stuart Ratzan, a partner in the Miami-based law firm Ratzan, Weissman & Boldt. “And yet the closure of the court system is a drastic step as our democracy cannot survive for long without a system of justice functioning at full steam. In the absence of a judicial system, we have chaos or martial law, and neither is good.”
Although video conferencing has been applied in the past to mitigate an illness or for security concerns, the new arrangements are quite a change for a justice system that has traditionally been limited by constitutional rights that entitle defendants to look into the eyes of their accusers and the people who will determine their fates. But, in an effort to slow the spread of coronavirus, social distancing recommendations handed down by the state and federal governments have forced courtrooms to abandon traditions and embrace once-resisted technology in order to preserve due-process rights and keep proceedings moving forward.
Ratzan believes these people-connecting technologies cannot not only keep the system of justice conducting certain necessary operations in the midst of the current crisis, but propel courtroom facilities into the 21st century as well.
“Why do we insist on gathering 100-200 people in a room in order to select a jury of eight people?” said Ratzan, who has been recognized by TopVerdict.com, not once, but twice in one year. “Are there better ways to gather jurors before and during voir dire? Should we consider purchasing the latest in temperature wand technology so we can take the temperatures of all those who enter the courthouse, especially those lawyers, jurors, judges and witnesses participating in jury trials?”
Across the country, officials have had to improvise to keep the court system running. Judges are not only holding trial by online video conferencing, many attorneys for the first time are questioning witnesses or making oral arguments by phone. Defendants are pleading guilty without ever entering a courtroom. In South Florida, thanks to permission from the Florida Supreme Court, judges are utilizing a Zoom platform to conduct virtual proceedings even though the Miami-Dade courthouse building remains closed.
“Once we get through this acute period of COVID19, we should spend time and money to bring our courtrooms up-to-date with technology,” said Ratzan. “We should also work on policies and procedures for the hearings and trials we conduct in person that minimize the risk of virus and germ transmission.”
Because experts predict the novel coronavirus is likely to return in the fall, Ratzan believes government authorities need to be ready sooner, rather than later to prevent transmission of the virus in the courthouse and preserve the judicial branch including the right to trial by jury.
“The future of video hearings and video appearance of witnesses at trial is bright,” said Ratzan. “It can make all of our lives better, more convenient, more efficient, and safer. As trial lawyers, we have a responsibility that transcends our personal practices to help insure the ongoing administration of our system of justice. Without it we are sunk as a democracy.”
To understand the breadth of courtroom technology and the potential consequences related to coronavirus on the judicial system, you will need to speak to trial attorney Stuart Ratzan, of the law firm Ratzan, Weissman & Boldt, who, for the past two decades, has assisted thousands of injury victims in South Florida and throughout the nation.