COVID Lessons Learned

If We Only Knew in March 2020 What We Know Now: Florida Courts’ COVID-19 Lessons Learned

Compiled by Beth Schwartz, OSCA Court Publications Writer

In early March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic began inconceivably re-shaping everyone’s personal and work lives, Florida’s courts responded swiftly and deliberately.  When the health crisis first began pervading Florida, Chief Justice Canady noted that, “In a matter of days and weeks, all around the state, we introduced adaptations that many participants in the justice system thought they would never see in their lifetimes—and these modifications brought about sweeping changes in the way we all do our jobs.”  Indeed, “Our response to the pandemic will forever change the way Florida’s courts operate,” he has stated. 

To commemorate the industry, the flexibility, and the creative responses of Florida’s judges and court staff during the pandemic, in late June 2020, the Office of the State Courts Administrator (OSCA), with contributions from most of Florida’s circuit courts, produced the Inspired Resourcefulness series , a collection of articles memorializing the wealth of ways judges and court staff have been carrying out the work of the branch under the cloud of this public health emergency.  Many readers emailed to express their appreciation for these stories, saying things like, “This series made me realize the important role you have been playing in court and US history,” and “The stories captured a significant moment in court history.” 

With restrictions to courthouse entry having been lifted recently, and with courtrooms finally beginning to return to more normal operations, it seemed timely to invite Florida’s district courts of appeal, circuit courts, supreme court, and OSCA to contemplate and provide a chronicle of the lessons the pandemic has taught them about ensuring access to justice during sustained crisis conditions.  The culmination is this anthology of COVID-19 Lessons Learned stories—a kind of bookend to, and a useful outgrowth of, the Inspired Resourcefulness series

This Introduction would be remiss if it did not acknowledge and thank the court public information officers (PIOs) across the state, who gathered information for and, in most cases, also crafted the stories that made this anthology possible.  Florida’s court PIOs have a compelling history.  Recognizing the value of having a dedicated supreme court employee to facilitate communication between the court and the media—as well as between the court and the public—then Chief Justice Kogan, as part of his Court Access Initiative in 1996, created the position of full-time PIO for the supreme court and offered the position to Mr. Craig Waters (the chief justice’s move was prescient: at the Florida Supreme Court in 2000, during Bush v. Gore, “responding to the press became more than a full-time job,” Mr. Waters remarked). 

In the 1990s, very few courts in the state had a PIO.  However, not long after, prompted by the 9/11 tragedy, then Chief Justice Charles T. Wells directed each chief judge to designate a court staff member to serve as their court’s PIO and “to require that all court-related contacts with the media be managed through the Public Information Officer to ensure that only accurate information is disseminated” (as recommended in the March 2002 reportPDF Download by the Florida Supreme Court Work Group on Emergency Preparedness).  Since then, in each court, someone has been denominated to coordinate emergency response activities and provide information to, and answer questions from, the media and the public (note: most Florida courts do not have full-time PIOs; for the employees who serve as PIOs in these courts, the PIO function is performed on top of other court duties).

The first meeting of Florida PIOs occurred in 2005 as part of a training program funded by a grant from The Florida Bar Foundation (which has provided support to the PIOs ever since).  Anticipating that their responsibilities would continue to grow and that they would benefit from having regular trainings as well as opportunities to share their ideas and concerns, this group decided to explore forming a permanent organization.  In 2007, with Mr. Waters named “Founding President,” they established the Florida Court Public Information Officers ( FCPIO), a federally recognized tax-exempt educational non-profit corporation created “to advance the ongoing dialogue among courts, media, and the public.” 

As Mr. Waters has observed, the PIOs began to meet routinely after their incorporation, but it was the 2016 release of the branch-wide communication plan that truly galvanized them.  When Delivering Our Message: Court Communication Plan for the Judicial Branch of Florida PDF Downloadwas published, then Chief Justice Jorge Labarga tasked the PIOs with putting the plan into effect in their respective courts, and that’s when the FCPIO “really began coming into its own,” Mr. Waters explained.  They began holding monthly conference calls; they also began availing themselves of the extraordinary popularity of social media.  So when the pandemic upended more traditional means of communicating, they were well-positioned to communicate quickly and efficiently with one another and with various court audiences.  Since the communication plan was issued, the PIOs’ skills have been tested and honed by multiple hurricanes, high-profile cases, and other emergencies, but the pandemic is the first crisis that has tested them all at the same time.

Throughout the health crisis, the PIOs have worked tirelessly with their chief judges, court administration, and one another to ensure that everyone has the most up-to-date information possible.  Below, in their own voices, read about the lessons that the pandemic has taught them and the others who work in their courts.

Fourth Circuit Learned How to Embark on a “Journey Never Imagined”

(Special thanks to Eve Janocko, Chief Deputy Court Administrator)

The combination of Information Technology, Teamwork, and Patience was essential when the courthouses in Clay, Duval, and Nassau Counties closed their doors to litigants in March 2020. Judges and staff embarked on a journey never imagined, which required creating new procedures and protocols to make the court operational in a landscape so different from the traditional framework that has endured centuries of precedent.

The most important lesson learned was that Technology was the only way to bridge the gap and allow the courts to continue critical and non-essential proceedings without missing too many beats. Dedicated IT staff were the critical component for our courts to transition to remote proceedings using the Zoom platform. Without our steadfast IT staff, there is no way that we could have transitioned to a remote working environment so quickly and seamlessly. Another glaring lesson learned is that we did not have enough IT staff and still DO NOT have adequate staffing levels. We had to quickly contract IT staff to fill the critical void to keep the courts open. Staffing levels and salaries for court IT staff statewide need to be seriously reviewed and changed.

Another lesson learned was the importance of Teamwork, with everyone pulling together to keep the courts open by adopting procedures for remote operations. To develop operations and handle pandemic requirements, Chief Judge Mark Mahon assembled an extraordinary team of judges, judicial assistants, magistrates, our trial court administrator, court counsel, staff attorney director, court technology officer, and court administration staff. Everyone in our circuit embraced the new normal and worked together to iron out the details and straighten out the kinks encountered. Teamwork has allowed a somewhat smooth journey to where we are operating today.

“The last lesson we discovered, which was one of the most important, was Patience as we all moved to a new normal that was outside our comfort zones.”

The last lesson we discovered, which was one of the most important, was Patience as we all moved to a new normal that was outside our comfort zones. Working together, we were able to address operational issues with the understanding that some court functions took precedence over others, requiring everyone to have patience that their needs would be addressed as timely as possible. Another area that requires a great deal of patience is assisting litigants and attorneys with using the Zoom platform, which, for many, was technically challenging, to say the least. Continued patience is also required during remote courtroom proceedings when litigants do not follow courtroom decorum and are constantly reminded that certain rules must be followed, such as wearing proper attire, not driving during your hearing, and refraining from swearing, eating, smoking, and drinking.

Collectively, everyone showed their professionalism and patience during the long year’s journey, working through the ups and downs of the pandemic. We are proud of the exceptional collegiality that our judges and court administration staff have in the Fourth Judicial Circuit. Together, we can tackle anything the world tosses our way!

Fifth Circuit Leveraged Zoom and Teams for Greater Access, Safety, and Productivity

(Special thanks to Rhaiza Robles , Multimedia Specialist; Judge Jennifer Bass; Peter Spanos, ADR Director; and Jeff Fuller, Chief Deputy Court Administrator)

Between March 2020 and March 2021, the Fifth Circuit held 22,828 remote hearings.

Rhaiza Robles, Multimedia Specialist:

  • Apps like Zoom and Teams allowed the Fifth Judicial Circuit to remain operational during the pandemic.
  • Even though many people had to work remotely, we were still able to provide access to the courts virtually, with hearings being conducted remotely via Zoom or telephone.
  • Between March 2020 and March 2021, the Fifth Circuit held 22,828 remote hearings.
  • The Fifth Circuit is currently conducting more than 2,000 hearings via Zoom every month.
  • This year alone, we’ve had between 30,000 and 45,000 participants in hearings each month.
  • The increase in participants is attributed to the convenience factor.
  • On our website, we have provided users with instructions on how to use Zoom, if they need the help: //www.circuit5.org/zoom/.
  • Mediators and other court employees have also been able to meet virtually and continue their work.
  • It looks like remote hearings are here to stay even after the pandemic. We look forward to continuing to offer this service for individuals to use.  

Judge Jennifer Bass:

"Zoom hearings have provided greater access to the courts in the domestic relations division,” said Judge Jennifer Bass. “There is greater participation by litigants, resulting in timesharing and access as well as support for children. Litigants have their cases heard with minimal to no economic impact on them, and transportation is not an impediment. Litigants of all ages have been able to navigate the platform and allow important cases to be heard and decided.”

Peter Spanos, ADR Director:

In our family law and dependency law mediations, we have experienced a higher attendance rate in mediations conducted via Zoom as opposed to in-person. I am attributing this to several factors:

  1. Ease of access via Zoom (i.e., no need to address transportation issues; no need to take a full day off from work to attend; limited need for childcare while attending mediation)
  2. Fewer safety concerns with Zoom proceedings (if domestic violence is an issue in the case, it is safer and more efficient having the parties appearing remotely)
  3. Attorneys’ productivity is enhanced as a result of Zoom (less “down-time” traveling to and from the courthouse)

We did learn that we had to do a better job of scheduling our small claims pre-trial mediations.  Initially, we scheduled the parties on the docket to appear all at one time. We quickly realized this was a logistical nightmare that needed to be addressed immediately. We addressed this issue by dividing up the docket of cases into one-hour or, in some cases, half-hour increments, which made the flow of cases much more manageable.  In most of our counties, when the parties are referred to mediation, we have someone in a breakout room who is capturing the contract information of the parties (email addresses, phone numbers) and scheduling a date and time in the immediate future on which to conduct the mediation. The Mediation Department then sends out the Zoom Link Notices to the parties.

The one drawback that we are experiencing is with the return of fully executed documents. When the parties reach an agreement, we have all the appropriate technological steps in place to ensure the ease of return of signed documents. For reasons we can’t yet explain, we are experiencing either a delay in the return of the documents or, in some cases, no documents returned. This is something that rarely happened “in-person” since the parties were physically present and would sign the documents prior to leaving the mediation session.

Sixth Circuit Devised Strategies for Protecting Everyone’s Health and Safety

(Special thanks to Stephen Thompson, Public Information Officer)

With the Sixth Judicial Circuit, it wasn’t as much a case of lessons learned as it was the realization that judges and staff could work quickly with other stakeholders as we bobbed and weaved in our fight against COVID-19. For the most part, our moves were made in accordance with often-changing benchmarks that came from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Florida Supreme Court.

In a nutshell, the health and safety of all of those involved—those tasked with the administration of justice, and those members of the public who find themselves in the judicial system—were at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Two crucial questions were always asked. How do we keep everyone safe? And what do we do when someone contracted the coronavirus?

Working remotely quickly appeared to be one of the best ways to maintain more than a modicum of the social distancing required while, at the same time, keeping the wheels of justice turning. There was a switch from desktops to laptops for almost all judges and employees for both maximum mobility and flexibility. We developed an emergency telework document to authorize staff to work remotely on an emergency basis (which was what the pandemic was considered). The judges didn’t need this. Zoom and teleconferencing—sometimes used in concert with people in court for a hearing—have become as standard as the customary in-person hearing, where everyone is required to physically attend. Parties and out-of-custody defendants benefited from this as much as anyone. As for in-custody defendants who were in our local jails, they were no longer brought over to courtrooms, instead appearing by videoconferencing. As for out-of-county arrestees, the Florida Supreme Court did not want them moved across county lines, so a procedure was set up for them to make sure they were represented and their bond was reasonable so their constitutional rights weren’t violated.

Then accommodations had to be made for those required to come to any of our courthouses. Contact surfaces were routinely and regularly cleaned. For a while, anyone entering had to answer a series of coronavirus-related questions, have their temperature taken, and be wearing a mask, and if they didn’t have a mask, a sheriff’s deputy would provide them with one. Once inside, visitors would see signage instructing them to continue wearing their masks and to social distance. In the courtrooms, signage on the benches told them where to sit so that social distancing was maintained. As for the judges presiding over their cases, they, too, wore masks and, in addition, were surrounded by plexiglass.

The mask issue may sound like a simple issue, but it often isn’t. We noticed N95 masks should be fit-tested before they are distributed to maximize effectiveness, and this has to be done by medical personnel. There wasn’t, but could have been, a video conference to demonstrate how to properly fit them.

These protocols were in place before we transitioned to Phase II, which, as described by the supreme court, allowed for jury trials. In essence, whatever protective measures were in place for judges, staff, attorneys, and members of the public had to be in place for jurors. Now they had to wear masks and social distance. To that end, the biggest courtrooms were selected for jury selection, regardless of their use beforehand, and once chosen, jurors wore masks and socially distanced. Once, our chief judge had to suspend jury trials in the two counties that make up the circuit (Pinellas and Pasco) because of an uptick in positivity rates, but once they came back down, he re-allowed the proceedings, all in accordance with the COVID-19 administrative orders handed down by the supreme court.

Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, some judges and staff contracted the coronavirus, and in at least one instance, an infected member of the public made it into a courtroom. For the latter scenario, the courtroom was thoroughly cleaned and sanitized. For the former scenario, we established a protocol for both confirming and evaluating reports of infection and determining the need for isolation or quarantine. The judge or employee in question had to follow a strict protocol. Anyone exhibiting symptoms at work was immediately sent home, had to quarantine for 15 days (later reduced to 10 days by the supreme court as regional conditions improved), and was required to test for COVID-19 three to four days after exhibiting symptoms. Some contact tracing was done in a way that avoided violating anyone’s privacy or sharing their medical condition. And, as a precaution, office spaces for an employee, and for fellow employees nearby, were cleaned and sanitized.

But for those developments directly affecting the public—such as a suspension of a type of jury trial—we informed the public via our webpage and Facebook. We also provided guidance regarding pandemic procedures to our vendors, who are contracted by us but not employed by us. They include mediators, non-staff interpreters, and experts. In retrospect, we might have increased the frequency of our webpage and Facebook posts at the outset of the pandemic. And we should have done a better job of keeping our active senior judges in the loop from the beginning, as well.

Seventh Circuit Discovered Many Positive Aspects of Remote Work—and Some Shortcomings

(Special thanks to Chief Judge Raul Zambrano and Mark Weinberg, Trial Court Administrator)

Like many, when we think about COVID lessons learned, issues surrounding remote proceedings immediately come to mind. Conducting remote proceedings is nothing new for the Seventh Circuit in that attorneys and litigants have been appearing telephonically for years, but our foray into video appearances began during the early days of the pandemic and has now become relatively commonplace. No discussion of this topic would be complete without mentioning the extraordinary dedication and flexibility exhibited by the judges and court staff in making remote court proceedings a reality. Once it became clear that the pandemic was not a short-term event and that efforts to deploy technology to facilitate remote proceedings on a broader scale had to be undertaken, everyone sprung into action and switched from “concept” to “reality” in relatively short order.

For our judges, one of the biggest lessons learned was that attorneys, litigants, and others seem to appreciate the conveniences of remote proceedings. Since we shifted to conducting the majority of court appearances remotely, the appearance rate among most everyone has been surprisingly high—across all case types.

For our judges, one of the biggest lessons learned was that attorneys, litigants, and others seem to appreciate the conveniences of remote proceedings. Since we shifted to conducting the majority of court appearances remotely, the appearance rate among most everyone has been surprisingly high—across all case types. Many have expressed their gratitude to the court for taking steps to conduct hearings while not exposing individuals to risks associated with large gatherings, not to mention the conveniences associated with not having to arrange for transportation, take time off from work, find childcare, or make other similar arrangements. Now that the legal community has gotten used to participating in court proceedings by remote means, many are predicting that certain proceedings will continue to be conducted in this fashion, even after the pandemic has subsided.

Members of the Bar have shared their experiences with remote proceedings, saying that video appearances have fostered better communication with their colleagues and have enabled them to multi-task in ways unimaginable before. In the past, they often had to hop in their car to drive from one court appearance to another, often in another county or a neighboring circuit. Now, with a simple click, they can quickly move from one proceeding to another without leaving their desks. Their availability for appearances is greatly enhanced, and they can schedule court appearances more efficiently, as a result.  

We have utilized Video Remote Interpreting for a number of years, using vendor-specific technology and equipment as recommended by the Commission on Trial Court Performance and Accountability. But as the demand for remote appearances by interpreters increased during the pandemic, we shifted our focus to using more commonly available technology (e.g., Zoom).

Most discussions regarding the utilization of remote technology center around its use for court proceedings, as that’s the bulk of what we do. But many of our court programs quickly adapted to the use of technology to keep in contact with participants. Our staff in drug court, veterans court, teen court, and pretrial services have also realized the benefits of remote technology in providing services to clients.

Though we have thus far focused on the positive aspects of remote technology, we must also acknowledge its shortcomings. It is true that most people have use of a smartphone, but not everyone has access to reliable internet connections or high-quality video cameras. At times, it can be very frustrating dealing with the technology shortfalls. For these, we have learned to adjust. We have also noticed that individuals appearing virtually have tended to be more relaxed and informal than those who appear in-person. It seems people’s perceptions of the importance of the proceedings and some of the traditional formalities have eroded.

This next lesson is not necessarily a “lesson learned” but more of a “lesson reinforced.” That is, we rediscovered how flexible and adaptable the judges and court staff are. Ever since COVID became part of our lexicon, everyone has pitched in to help do whatever is needed to continue the work of the courts. We discovered that members of our workforce have all sorts of knowledge, skills, and abilities that have come into play to help us deal with issues and circumstances. Learning about people’s “hidden skills” has been a pleasant and surprising side benefit to our work over the past 15 months.  

In addition to rediscovering how remarkably well everyone works together in our circuit, this health crisis has reminded us how effectively we all work together statewide, as a branch. It has been such a relief to know that we can call upon our chief justice, 19 fellow chief judges and court administrators, plus multiple OSCA staff, for ideas or support at a moment’s notice. And the same can be said of our justice system partners; the pandemic has reminded us how much we rely upon the great work of our clerks, state attorney, public defender, jail officials, and others. We have a renewed appreciation for all the people with whom we work and for the need to seek their input when making decisions regarding court operations. As we learned, opinions, thoughts, and beliefs may be varied, but all must be considered.  

While many have undoubtedly enjoyed the freedoms that remote work has afforded them, most are looking forward to a return to some sense of normalcy.

Eighth Circuit Has Fresh Appreciation for Its Collegial Community

(Special thanks to Christy Cain, Communications Coordinator)

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Eighth Judicial Circuit was reminded of the importance of developing and maintaining solid relationships between the judiciary, court staff, lawyers, and court partners. Maybe it was hurricane preparedness that taught us relationships are created and cultivated with two-way conversations, trust, and prudent plans of action. We were reminded that these connections need to be established before the crisis hits or, in the case of COVID-19, soon thereafter. Our relationships are and have been maintained with open lines of communication, support, patience, empathy, and the common goal of ensuring the courts are accessible, fair, effective, responsive, and accountable.

Our judges developed COVID-19 procedures that included everything from deliveries of court documents to the handling of evidentiary hearings. Developing these protocols required the judiciary and their staff to consider the issues and needs of lawyers, litigants, other stakeholders, and the community. These procedures were disseminated at town halls, through memos, and on our website, all with the assistance of court technology staff. They consistently provided support for all judges and staff with little to no delay.

The most significant and encouraging observation is that very few have complained. The judiciary and staff, along with clerk of courts, court security, and other court partners worked in unison to create a controlled, safe environment allowing the courts to remain operational.

Ninth Circuit Realizes Its Courts are Remarkably Nimble and Resilient—and Has “Helpers” Everywhere

(Special thanks to the Ninth Judicial Circuit)

COVID taught us our courts are surprisingly nimble….

We all know that change doesn’t come easy to the courts. It takes a great deal of deliberation and a great deal of time. And time was something no court had when the pandemic hit our region in March 2020. COVID forced the courts to rethink the administration of justice and what it means to access it. It demanded that we move quickly from thought to action. And we did. We shifted our courts from in-person to virtual hearings almost overnight and learned firsthand that necessity is truly the mother of invention.

Everyone pitched in, putting in long hours and hard work—the results of which are literally outstanding. Over the past 14 months, the Ninth Circuit conducted nearly 240,000 virtual hearings. A phenomenal feat for a system entrenched in tradition and reluctant to change.

Luckily, we had the foundation of our decade-long investment in technology infrastructure to build upon, but that base didn’t include guideposts to follow. We were in uncharted territory, and the only way we were able to quickly navigate and enact these changes was through the dedication and grit of everyone at the Ninth Circuit. Judges retooled processes and procedures. IT staff upgraded courtroom systems to meet the new demands and trained staff on technology. Judicial assistants managed the frontlines, handling a constantly changing docket and helping parties virtually access the courts. Everyone pitched in, putting in long hours and hard work—the results of which are literally outstanding. Over the past 14 months, the Ninth Circuit conducted nearly 240,000 virtual hearings. A phenomenal feat for a system entrenched in tradition and reluctant to change.

…and remarkably resilient

The pandemic made everything harder. It’s harder to prepare for court when court is all of a sudden virtual and everyone needs to learn new processes and protocols while also learning the technology. It’s harder to do the work of the courts when traditional systems like education and transportation are upended. It’s harder to manage the emotional burden of the work when just living day to day now carries a heavy emotional toll. And, despite everything the pandemic threw our way, the courts matched its relentless intensity with remarkable resilience. The work of the courts continued. Day in and day out, our judges, staff, judicial assistants, court administrators, lawyers, and legal professionals put aside all of the stress and strain of living through these times and showed up for the work and for the people in our community who needed the courts to provide a peaceful resolution to their disputes.

…and there are helpers everywhere.

Everyone knows the famous quote from Mister Rogers: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things happen in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” We’ve always known this to be true, but COVID taught us that the helpers are everywhere.

Everyone knows the famous quote from Mister Rogers: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things happen in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” We’ve always known this to be true, but COVID taught us that the helpers are everywhere.

In a time of increasing isolation and separation, the Ninth Circuit was never alone in its struggle to navigate the uncharted waters of this pandemic. There wasn’t a day over these past 14 months when the courts didn’t lean on support from Orange and Osceola County governments, from the local Bar associations and legal community, from medical and security experts, or from our fellow circuits throughout the state. The capable hands of all these helpers kept our court community safe and the work of the courts going during a time when so much of the world was at a standstill. Regardless of the ask or challenge, everyone always responded yes, how can we help. We never had to look for the helpers—they were and continue to be with us every step of the way. That has been the greatest lesson COVID taught us. And we are grateful for all your help.

Tenth Circuit Reflects on the Importance of Strong Relationships and Good Communications

(Special thanks to Nick Sudzina, Trial Court Administrator; Stacy Hoskins, Chief Deputy Court Administrator; and Tracy Skeen and Julie Nelson, Court Administration)

As we look back over the past year and all the changes that were made in the Tenth Judicial Circuit to keep our courts open and accessible throughout the ongoing pandemic, the first and perhaps most important lesson that we can take away is that our relationships with the other offices and community partners are both strong and symbiotic. Our second lesson learned is that our lines of communication are vital to the success of restructuring the courts from an in-person to a virtual operation.

The Clerks’ Offices in all three of our counties along with the Offices of the State Attorney, Public Defender, and Regional Counsel have worked diligently to cooperatively enforce all the COVID-related restrictions throughout our courthouses and to work within the confines of newly implemented virtual court processes. This was key to the overall success we have been able to achieve within our circuit. Rather than be staggered by the massive undertaking, we collectively and immediately began designing and implementing our new procedures (highlighted in the article in the Inspired Resourcefulness series ), with each office communicating with the others to make available a complementary overall process to all our court users. As the pandemic progressed, we streamlined and improved our procedures as well as our methods of communicating them to the legal community and public. To reach a wider audience more quickly, we utilized our Twitter feed, added Instagram, and created a YouTube channel for the purpose of releasing easy-to-follow, procedure-related videos and transition updates directly to the legal community and to the public.

10th Circuit Zoom Meeting Screenshot

Tenth Circuit COVID stakeholders regularly held virtual meetings during the pandemic.  In the meeting pictured above, participants included Brian Haas, state attorney for the Tenth Circuit; Crystal Hood-Lewis, general counsel for the Tenth Circuit; Tracy Skeen, circuit PIO; Stacy Butterfield, clerk of circuit court, Polk County; Polk County Judge Robert G. Fegers; Chief Judge Ellen S. Masters; and representatives of the Polk County Sheriff’s Office and the Office of the Public Defender.

The Bench Bar Associations, including The Florida Bar and our local voluntary bar associations, were also very important communication partners who played a key role in sharing our message with the legal community. Their assistance was instrumental in quickly communicating any and all COVID-19-related procedural changes to the legal community from the very beginning, and they continue to do so today. Their actions enabled our transition from a live and in-person platform to a virtual one to be a largely smooth experience. Their contributions to keeping the courts open and accessible have been invaluable to our success.

We would also like to acknowledge the effort put forth by our Tenth Circuit bench in keeping all our dockets moving throughout the last year. After we suspended in-person court proceedings in our circuit—except for those essential and critical proceedings that were not conducive to remote appearances—we found ways to conduct proceedings electronically by video or telephone. The judges of this circuit immediately rose to the challenge and have worked tirelessly over the last year to ensure that the courts stayed open and that our court users experienced as little delay as possible in having their cases addressed and brought to fruition.

Throughout the last year, our experience transitioning into, honing, and now maintaining our virtual courts platform has been very successful and has afforded us a viable alternative operating protocol in the face of other emergency or unforeseen circumstances, such as the aftermath of a hurricane, when brick and mortar courthouses are rendered temporarily inaccessible. We learned that by working closely together with other offices and community partners, we can achieve anything and that, through adversity, the courts of the Tenth Judicial Circuit can and will remain open and accessible.

Eleventh Judicial Circuit Embraces Resilience, Innovation, and Improving Access

(Special thanks to Chief Judge Bertila Soto; Sandra M. Lonergan, Trial Court Administrator; Chief Judge-Elect Nushin Sayfie; and Eunice Sigler, Director of the Office of Government Liaison & Public Relations)

Chief Judge Bertila Soto:

I have learned how resilient we are and how fast things change. I am so proud of our circuit and all of its stakeholders. We hardly missed a beat.

Sandra M. Lonergan, Trial Court Administrator:

I learned that one fear can be obliterated by a bigger fear. The fear of change and the use of technology was quickly replaced with fear of the pandemic, and as a result, we pivoted on a dime and went virtual in a heartbeat. Innovation, trial and error, perseverance, and patience were the glue that made it all come together.

Chief Judge-Elect Nushin Sayfie (currently administrative judge of the Circuit Criminal Division):

  1. A lot of inefficiencies were uncovered. As a result of us being very accessible in court pre-pandemic, we realized during COVID-19 how much we are able to do outside of live court that we were previously doing in live court unnecessarily.
  2. We are hopefully going to be able to continue to give easier access to the court system via Zoom to people who are poor and underserved, who may have transportation difficulties or childcare issues, or who cannot leave work to come to court.
  3. Meetings with stakeholders or colleagues have been easier and more efficient as well as better attended.
  4. It has been easy to connect with colleagues across the state and country to share information and knowledge.
  5. We have had regular Zoom meetings with our staff, which has improved morale and collegiality by keeping everyone included and connected.

Twelfth Circuit Re-Imagines Best Ways to Prepare for Moving Beyond Essential Functions

(Special thanks to Kimberly Miller, Trial Court Administrator)

If we knew then what we know now, we would have thought bigger and more long-term. Thankfully, we had a continuity of operations plan with mission essential functions already outlined that we could follow initially.

But in preparation for moving beyond the essential functions, I wish that we would have thought to utilize many more of our employees and those from our community partners to assist with preparing all of our court facilities to allow limited persons into the buildings. Everything from measuring courtrooms for social distancing, hanging signs, removing seats, planning for how to move people, ordering and organizing supplies, performing temperature screenings, and asking health questions was handled by a core group of court administration staff. In hindsight, we should have re-prioritized everyone’s job functions for a week or two and utilized many more of our employees to handle this huge job.

Thirteenth Judicial Circuit Adapts to the New Normal

(Special thanks to Mike Moore, Public Information Officer)

The Thirteenth Circuit resumed criminal trials in October 2020. We had two trials on the first day, including a first degree murder trial that was covered by Court TV. The coverage actually helped people see that we were following all COVID safety protocols. In our largest courtroom, which was used for the trial, our facilities department extended the jury box to be able to accommodate the socially distanced jurors.

In that first week of trials, our circuit had nine jury picks involving eight different judges. Working with the clerk of the court, we were able to stagger jurors coming to the courthouse into three shifts (7:30 am, 10:30 am, and 1:30 pm, Monday through Friday).  

Along with creating a video, hosted by our chief judge, showing how jury selection was going to be different and still safe, we utilized the local media outlets to help us tell that story. Juror turnout was better than expected. The residents of Hillsborough County did a great job showing up for their civic duty.

Most of our criminal courtrooms were physically rearranged to accommodate social distancing. In many courtrooms, the jurors were seated in the gallery, and the jury box was used as the witness stand. Plexiglass partitions were placed in strategic areas throughout most courtrooms to provide more protection and separation.

Since inmates were no longer being transported to the courthouse, our video courtroom was quickly utilized by judges from various divisions, allowing them to conduct hearings and plea agreements with defendants in our county jails.

One of the biggest projects was transforming a former records storage area into one of our largest courtrooms. This courtroom is completely compliant with social distancing, including a jury box that can accommodate up to 16 jurors (all socially distanced). Once COVID safety protocols are no longer needed, the courtroom will be rescaled, becoming the largest courtroom in our entire complex.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway was how much everyone contributed to making things work. From finding solutions that were out of the box to adjusting to doing things so differently, the people of the Thirteenth Circuit did a great job adapting to a new normal.

Fourteenth Circuit Borrowed Lessons Learned from Hurricane Michael to Operate Effectively during the Pandemic

(Special thanks to Robyn H. Gable, Trial Court Administrator)

After Hurricane Michael, we had already learned that civil cases work well with remote proceedings. During COVID-19, we also discovered mediation and in-custody criminal cases were well-suited for remote technology.

After the devastation the Fourteenth Judicial Circuit experienced after Hurricane Michael, plans were already in the works to move the circuit to a position to be able to operate remotely. The circuit had already begun to use “virtual courtrooms,” using senior judges from the Fifth Circuit to preside over civil cases resulting from the hurricane. Therefore, when COVID-19 became a pandemic and the courts had to close their doors to the public, the transition to remote proceedings came very easily to the Fourteenth Circuit. Judges had already been equipped with Surface Pros, and now every member of our court staff in all six counties has a Surface Pro as well as the capability to work remotely.

While working under COVID-19 conditions was strenuous, at times, with limited courtroom space, staggering dockets, and managing jurors, we found some things were well suited for remote technology. One area that surprised many of us was dependency. In many cases, judges and magistrates were getting better participation from the parents via Zoom hearings than they did for in-person hearings.

Another lesson learned from working remotely is the need to stay engaged with staff. While some employees enjoy the flexibility of working from home, others prefer the structure of the office environment, so when most everyone was working remotely, we discovered the need to reach out and check on staff, engage in circuit-wide Zoom trainings, and pass along information about the free services available from the State of Florida Employee Assistance Program periodically.

Fifteenth Circuit Learned How to Prevent COVID Outbreaks, Provide Peace of Mind, and Better Utilize Remote Technology

(Special thanks to Barbara Dawicke, Trial Court Administrator—and to Mary Quinlan, Chief Deputy Court Administrator, and Noel Chessman, Chief Information Officer, for their contributions)

In March 2020, COVID-19 hit Florida. Concern, confusion, and school closings followed. However, in the Fifteenth Circuit, Chief Judge Krista Marx insisted that the courts remain open because of the courts’ essential role in providing justice in our communities. In a press release, she stated in part, “It is in times of stress and uncertainty that the rule of law is most called upon. For this reason, the Court has committed itself to doing not only all that it must during this public health emergency, but also all that it can.” To that end, her leadership during the pandemic helped guide the circuit in its quest to find creative means to make this goal come to fruition.

Lesson Learned:  Provide personal protective gear (PPE) to court employees and court users and COVID-19 outbreaks can be prevented

In January 2020, COVID-19 started appearing in the United States. Before Florida was impacted, Court Finance recommended that the circuit purchase facemasks and hand sanitizer. The circuit immediately purchased and stored the PPEs. In March 2020, with the arrival of COVID-19 in Florida, PPEs were deployed, and Court Finance was kept busy re-stocking and researching vendors for disinfectant wipes, additional masks, hand sanitizer, and face shields. Court staff and judges were provided with all the PPEs they requested. Courtrooms were sanitized, and the chief judge directed social distancing practices and mask wearing for anyone working in or entering a courthouse. In early June 2020, the county started providing the circuit with masks for distribution to the public at the front doors of each courthouse. Due in part to the early distribution of PPEs, social distancing, and mask requirements, the circuit has kept the courthouses open and has not experienced an outbreak of COVID-19 in any of the five courthouses.

Lesson Learned:  Sharing information with court partners helped prevent COVID-19 outbreaks and provided peace of mind for court staff

Lesson Learned: Remote technology is another option for many court proceedings

The chief judge’s goal during the pandemic was to keep the courts open and accessible to litigants while maintaining the safety of the public and court staff. Remote technology such as Zoom has allowed court operations to continue to occur while providing a safe environment for the public, judges, and staff. In the Fifteenth Circuit, remote technology continues to be utilized in multiple capacities such as for meetings, mediations, remote court interpreting, inmate appearances from the jail, and court hearings and trials. By embracing remote technology early on during the pandemic, the circuit was able to quickly pivot from in-person to remote technology as the primary method for keeping court cases flowing. The result is that from the start of the pandemic in Florida, mid-March 2020, to April 23, 2021 (the date of this article), judges, magistrates, and civil traffic officers successfully presided over 542,653 hearings.

Lesson Learned: Ensure that everyone has access to remote technology if remote technology is the means of operating the courts

While most court users have access to a smart device, there remain some litigants who need assistance to appear remotely for hearings. To facilitate access, the circuit created several kiosks, each with a Zoom-enabled tablet. Using the kiosks’ tablets, litigants with technology needs could access their remote hearings using court-provided technology from the public hallways.

Lesson Learned: Jury trials can be safely conducted using appropriate precautions

Before community conditions allowed for the resumption of jury trials, the chief judge realized that it was important to inform the public (potential jurors) of the safety measures the circuit had implemented to ensure their wellbeing. To that end, she produced a video that shows the steps potential jurors follow when called for service and the safety measures taken to protect them each step of the way. Later, once trials began, court administration staff were stationed outside the courthouse. There, court staff screened potential jurors for possible COVID-19 symptoms or exposure to the virus prior to being permitted into the courthouse. Potential jurors who posed any risk to others were postponed to a later service date. Once inside, all jury pools were socially distanced and provided masks, and additional measures such as plexiglass barriers and air scrubbers were installed in courtrooms and jury rooms to ease any health and safety concerns and to diminish any possible contamination.

Lesson Learned: Evidence can be presented digitally

Although the pandemic brought new challenges to the court, it also brought new innovative solutions. In April 2020, one month into the pandemic, Judge Lisa Small, Judge Paige Gillman, Former Judge Jessica Ticktin, and Magistrate Temi Zeitenberg approached court technology with a request for a digital evidence solution for remote hearings that would eliminate either the transfer of paper evidence or the printing of evidence. As the development of a solution progressed, Magistrate Maxine Williams and Chief Judge-elect Glenn Kelley joined the project with additional ideas and input. Less than six months after the initial concept was discussed, Judge Kelley piloted the evidence portal in a two-day circuit civil trial that included over 60 digital exhibits. Since its launch in October 2020, the Digital Evidence Portal has been used in nearly all court types by many judges and magistrates. To initiate its use, judges refer attorneys to court technology for a brief 15-minute orientation prior to their first use in court. Additionally, Court technology YouTube videos exist as a reference resource. Feedback from attorneys and judges alike have spurred additional programming enhancements in the evidence portal. Chief Judge-elect Kelley believes the evidence portal will have a place in the post-COVID courtroom.

Lesson Learned: The more education on COVID-19 that you can provide, the better

Even with the distribution of COVID-19 informational e-mails on a regular basis, rumors and inaccurate information related to the spread or dangers of COVID-19 persisted among court staff. In an attempt to correct false information, the circuit asked a local health department physician to provide an interactive “lunch and learn” webinar focused solely on the virus. Court staff and judges were able to anonymously ask the health department physician questions and receive accurate scientific facts related to COVID-19 concerns. The judges and court staff appreciated the information provided.

By being proactive, innovative, communicative, and factual, the chief judge, judges, magistrates, and court staff were able to commendably carry out their essential roles during the pandemic.  With effective vaccines readily and widely available, the circuit looks forward to a complete return to normal court operations in the near future.

Seventeenth Circuit Departments Share an Abundance of Lessons Learned

(Special thanks to Meredith Bush, Communications Coordinator, and the Seventeenth Judicial Circuit)

General Magistrates

It is much easier for the public to attend hearings by Zoom. I have not entered a default consent all year. No issues with traffic, busses running late, parking, “ride forgot me”; everyone is able to participate in their lives. (Yes, there are technical glitches, but those are overcome.)

The lawyers are able to stay timely as they are not running around from court to court to attend hearings. I am resetting very few hearings resulting from lawyers being held up with another judge/general magistrate.

The hearings seem to take less time, and there is much less interruption of the witness. In the courtroom, people have a tendency to speak out of turn; that is rare on Zoom. It is harder to interrupt.

Drug Court Program

It has been over a year since the coronavirus epidemic became a pandemic. I think that many of us thought the pandemic would be over by now, and life as we once knew it would be back to “normal.”

Our circuit really has done an exceptional job protecting the health of its employees. Our hearings immediately transitioned to Zoom hearings, and staff were given permission to work remotely.

There have been numerous virtual learning opportunities offered and made available. My staff and members of the drug court team have taken advantage of many of these webinars and trainings—from the National Association for Drug Court Professionals, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and OSCA.

One of the first things our drug court did was to follow the recommendations of the CDC, state, and local government directives. Additionally, we focused on better coordination and communication among the drug court team and our partners, so we were aware of any policy changes to rules for accepting clients to residential programs and drug testing. We made lists of these outside service providers and updated them regularly, while making them accessible to the court and the drug court team. Additionally, we created a drug court-specific COVID page on our website for the public to access links to the CDC guidelines, state guidelines, and community resources for food distribution, community service locations, and other valuable information.

The court program specialists have assisted both treatment providers and supervision with providing contact information. Additionally, we assist whenever possible in contacting participants. The purpose of the contact ranges from re-engaging in services to allow for stability of our program participants, to providing Zoom information, to troubleshooting with participants who may have had experienced technical difficulties with attending hearings.

We have found ourselves connecting early in the morning and again late at night, with the intent of “doing whatever is necessary” to get the work and research done.

Court Interpreters

A year into COVID, the Staff Interpreters Office has learned to communicate virtually, use Zoom while interpreting for people with limited English proficiency, and provide improved training in order to make the team more comfortable using technology.

We have covered dependency trials, non-jury trials, motions to suppress, competency and psych evaluations, dependency mediations, domestic violence injunction hearings, and bond court.

However, we are still limited to consecutive interpreting for many daily proceedings. For some of the court dockets, the judge is not the host, and this limits the ability to launch language interpretation mode. With these dockets, we are often unable to call interpreter cases out of turn. The interpreters must wait long periods of time on standby and are not able to rotate to other Zoom meetings. We are confident the simultaneous interpreting mode improves understanding, avoids interruptions, and lessens fatigue for the parties and especially for the interpreters. It allows the virtual proceeding to more closely resemble in-person interpreting. For languages other than Spanish and Creole, we have learned during COVID that interpreters are more readily available when they have the opportunity to participate via Zoom. They avoid the expense of time and travel for hearings that are sometimes cancelled last minute or that turn out to be very brief. Interpreters covering weekend magistrate court are also happy to continue participating via Zoom.

We learned the importance of making sure all staff are as comfortable as possible using technology. By participating in workshops with the National Center for State Courts, we learned about the language interpretation feature in Zoom for simultaneous interpreting. We also reached out to other circuits, and we were able to introduce the Zoom features to improve interpreting for people with limited English proficiency and for other court participants.

We have been sharing assignments and scheduling online with Google Sheets. We are also training and retraining as needed. We use Zoom on home computers and on smartphones, and we are well-versed in how to help participants utilize the technology. What we find is that it is important to reinforce training and stay connected as a team.

Another lesson learned is how to address the waiting time for cases to be called. Some parties request interpreters to be on standby for dockets from 8:30 to noon. This makes it impossible to assist the many courtrooms that require interpreters at the same time. The Court Interpreters Office many times has to pull an interpreter from a pending hearing in order to accommodate other judges. We have learned to carefully instruct the person requesting the interpreter to avoid retaining the interpreter for an indefinite period.

Mediation and Arbitration

Lessons learned include the following:

  • Devise group emails and share spreadsheets for sections of the office/judiciary regarding procedures and sharing information.
  • Devise fillable forms for completing work and returning it to the judiciary. 
  • Devise workbenches for filing reports/agreements. 
  • Hold Zoom meetings for training(s). 
  • Be cognizant of your attire, your background, and what is said during Zoom meetings/mediations. Be sure to mute when not speaking.

Staff Attorneys

It is good to know that our office is able to accomplish from home almost any and all tasks that were normally completed in office and that, despite the terrible negative effects of COVID, the circuit was able to experiment with technology. Moving forward, we know that this technology (like Zoom) can continue to be utilized in many instances where in-person hearings were typically required. This will help a lot of people who cannot afford to take time off from their jobs, which I'm sure often took up a full day away from their workplace. This will make things much more efficient for all parties involved.

Court Reporting

In Court Reporting Services, we adapted quickly to remote working by finding ways to modernize procedures. Tasks that were done before via paper and face-to-face were streamlined using a more efficient electronic method. For instance, parties are now sending audio requests and making payments online, while also receiving their audio files via an electronic link. We also saw firsthand how Zoom hearings were a great tool to have, and it allows the court reporters to readily identify the parties when speaking. Overall, the court reporters have been able to transition smoothly from working in the office to working remotely during the pandemic.

Judicial Information Systems

Prior to the COVID-19 closure of in-person operations, we had Zoom, CMS, VPN, and portable equipment in place to work from anywhere. Our Zoom model was picked up by the whole state. Our transition to these methods at the Seventeenth Circuit was almost seamless. We found that by working from home, our IT staff worked more efficiently, able to put more hours into working because travel time was saved. We were able to accomplish more on the development side. Members of the judiciary who were reluctant to use CMS functions like online scheduling and agreed/proposed orders learned the benefits and loved the system.

One of the lessons we learned was to make sure everyone has access to a computer at home. A year before the pandemic, we had replaced all the judges’ desktops and laptops with Surface Pro tablets. Judges were trained and were used to the mobility of Surface Pro. This helped us tremendously after we shut down the courthouse on March 20, 2020. Judges were able to work from home the next day. On the other hand, for our judicial assistants and other staff who didn't have access to a computer at home, we had to scramble to purchase new laptops. We had 90 old laptops from judiciary equipment replacement that we provided to court administration staff, but if we had implemented the same mobility process with them that we had done with our judges, staff would have had a seamless transition as well. With that lesson, as budgeting permits, we are planning to replace court administration staff's desktops with laptops, thus providing them a better environment in the office (docking station with large monitor/keyboard/mouse) and the ability to work from anywhere.

Finance

Before COVID, we relied heavily on FedEx to send our packages of invoices to Finance and Accounting (OSCA) for payment processing. Today we scan all invoices to a designated email address where Finance retrieves invoices and processes them for payment. With this process, we have reduced our expenses as we no longer ship our invoices via FedEx.

Mental Health

I have learned that court support staff and case managers can work remotely and still be efficient and effective getting the job done accurately and timely, even if working more hours to do so.

Case Management

Lessons learned include:

  • Increase mandatory training for the “just in case moments,” e.g., Zoom: prepare for the worst and you'll (for the most part) be ready, and incorporate that training in new staff training.
  • Clear and consistent communication from/to administration/directors is a must.
  • Communication/checking in with staff is a must...continuing regular staff meetings needs to occur.
  • Most of all, work can be successfully completed remotely provided the appropriate training and tools are made available. However, working remotely can be isolating, so checking in individually with staff is helpful.

Nineteenth Circuit Learned How to Keep Cases Moving and Stay Productive

(Special thanks to Patty Harris, Trial Court Administrator)
So many lessons learned—good and bad—but perhaps the greatest lesson learned from COVID-19 is that we now know how to keep cases moving using remote hearings when in-person contact is limited in the courthouses.

Judges and staff have become incredibly adept at Zooming and have learned to adapt to any situation, from Zooming on an IPhone or IPad when the internet is out, to acting as a bailiff to quickly  mute an unruly litigant, a barking dog, or a neighbor’s lawnmower (the Zoom mute button has never been so valuable!). Many attorneys no longer have hearings in multiple locations and, because travel between courthouses is reduced, judges are often able to set hearings back-to-back with other counties. Judges have learned new ways of connecting via Skype when the VPN is down and have learned how to use OneDrive for Word documents when the server is inaccessible. Judges and attorneys have learned unique ways to share and store evidence. Quickly created “Do’s and Don’ts” of Zoom hearings have aided clerk staff and bailiffs to establish and use Zoom rooms. Due to COVID-19, many judges are now completely paperless and can effectively use Smartbench to create templates and e-file orders with the click of a key. The best news, however, is that many judges never stopped working, and, now, the backlog is minimized in some divisions. In the Nineteenth Circuit, this is especially true in the Family Division.

Also, remote hearings provide us more flexibility. Because we are working remotely, employees no longer travel to work, saving on fuel, clothing, and lunch costs. Employees are more productive and can easily flex their hours. Multi-tasking has become a lifeblood. One judicial assistant proved she can talk on the phone while closing cases and responding to emails. No doubt, we realized just how productive we could be when working from home.

When working from home, we realized we must learn to walk away, too. In a normal workday, employees stopped to chat with coworkers, attended meetings, and took lunch breaks. When working from home, we realized it is important to likewise schedule time to re-charge to stay productive.

Remarkably, when working from home, we realized we must learn to walk away, too. In a normal workday, employees stopped to chat with coworkers, attended meetings, and took lunch breaks. When working from home, we realized it is important to likewise schedule time to re-charge to stay productive.

Twentieth Circuit Learned the Value of Having Adequate Technology Resources, PPEs, and a Plan for Meeting the Challenges of Remote Work

(Special thanks to Sara Miles, Public Information Officer)

The following feedback comes from several Twentieth Circuit managers:

1-If I knew in advance what to expect, we would have been better prepared with technology. The ability to obtain laptops, cell phones, and webcams timely was challenging. Technology was necessary for so many employees to be able to telecommute in our earlier phase, and the need continued in our efforts to have productive and effective meetings with staff/management, other agencies, and the defendants we supervise on Pretrial Supervision, Diversion, and Probation. Familiarity with Zoom and other online platforms would also have been helpful in advance.

2-Be better prepared to conduct business remotely and have better supplies not only of PPEs but also of technology equipment. At first, how could we have ever predicted something like this? Once we knew what we were up against, I think we all did a great job in getting the courts up and running as quickly as possible.

3-The coronavirus pandemic has been challenging for many human resources professionals and caused a great deal of disruption in our lives, having to navigate through unknown waters and forcing us to rapidly adapt and rethink priorities. The information being received was fast-moving, and we had to quickly learn and apply this information to our daily tasks. Considering we are not a work-from-home organization, we did quite well as a department adapting to our temporary way of working while continuing to provide essential services to the judiciary, court staff, other agencies, and the public.

However, if we knew in March 2020 what we were going to be up against, the human resources team should have developed a guide or some type of helpful tool for managers and supervisors, which would have outlined the common challenges of remote working and, at the same time, address how managers and supervisors can support their employees while working from home. There are so many factors involved with remote working, and a “one-size-fits-all” approach doesn’t necessarily work for all departments. The plan should have outlined resources that are available for managers and supervisors dealing with the emotional challenges that employees working from home may be facing, especially for those with children learning at home.

Second District Court of Appeal Improved Court Access with a “Porch Solution”

(Special thanks to Lori Holmes, System Administrator, and Jo Haynes, Marshal)

The Second District Court of Appeal (DCA), unlike the other DCAs, has operations in two locations: Tampa, where most of the court’s 16 judges and most of the judges’ staff members have their offices and where oral arguments are held, and Lakeland, where the clerk’s office is located. When the pandemic began to infiltrate Florida and a state of emergency was declared, most of the Second DCA workforce began to work remotely to limit the spread of COVID-19 and to protect the health of its staff, the public, and their families. To this day, for safety reasons, court visitors are discouraged from stopping by the building.

Even though everyone is encouraged to submit filings electronically and to call the clerk’s office with any questions, some filers, especially self-represented litigants, still prefer to conduct business in person. To ensure that these visitors have access to court services, the Second DCA launched an outdoor kiosk service. The kiosk was envisioned in response to a May 2020 administrative order issued by Chief Justice Canady ( AOSC20-32PDF Download) instructing Florida’s courts to “continue to innovate, increase the use of technology, and take other measures to expand remote capacity while limiting person-to-person contact when not necessary” and to make “alternative arrangements” for people who cannot enter a courthouse due to “a likelihood that they may have COVID-19.”

At the Second District Court of Appeal, Holly Tidwell, chief deputy marshal, is testing the kiosk solution with Mary Beth Kuenzel, the DCA clerk.

At the Second District Court of Appeal, Holly Tidwell, chief deputy marshal, is testing the kiosk solution with Mary Beth Kuenzel, the DCA clerk. 

According to Second DCA Marshal Jo Haynes, the outdoor kiosk is available for use in two sets of circumstances. First, it serves as an access point for those who do not meet the specified health screening criteria to enter the lobby (health screenings are mandatory for anyone seeking to visit the building). And second, it provides access on the one day a week that no visitors may enter the building because health screenings are not available (four days a week, a deputy marshal is on hand to perform the health screenings; however, once a week, the court relies on the contract services of a deputy sheriff, who is not permitted to perform health screenings).

The idea for this “porch solution” came from the marshal, but it took an assortment of court personnel to make it a reality: members of the facilities team remembered they had a podium on wheels, and they also arranged for the connections to power and ethernet; the system administrator had the notion of utilizing a video solution comprising two Cisco Webex DX80 Telepresence units with touch-screen video and audio, and she also had two ethernet drops installed to provide network connectivity to the devices; and the connection was completed with assistance from OSCA’s Office of Information Technology, which provided the configuration of both devices as well as a license enabling the devices to communicate with one another.

One of the DX80 units is located on the service counter of the clerk’s office, and, from this unit, calls can be initiated to the kiosk, where the other unit is housed. The kiosk device receives its power from an outlet on the exterior wall, and the network cable feed enters the building through the mailbox drop. Both devices reside on the court’s secondary network, and, for security purposes, they are configured not to auto-answer incoming/outgoing calls. Also for security reasons, the kiosk remains inside the front door of the court until it is needed; once outside, it is attached to the rolling podium and remains within direct sight of the deputy.

Although the outdoor kiosk solution is still fairly new, thus far, the marshal’s office is pleased with the quality of the sound and video. And Chief Judge Nelly Khouzam added, “I could not be more proud of the resourcefulness of the marshal and her team. They continue to work tirelessly to find ways to provide the public with improved access to our court in a very user-friendly way.”

Fourth District Court of Appeal Has New Appreciation for Technology and IT Professionals

(Special thanks to Daniel DiGiacomo, Marshal) 

These are the some of our lessons learned:

  • We learned the value that an electronic workflow system provides, enabling remote work and flexibility.
  • We learned that technology can be used to leverage the capabilities of remote work for employees— with no degradation of work product and efficiency.
  • We learned the critical need our IT professionals fill. Our IT Department has been key in our ability to operate remotely during the pandemic.
  • We learned that IT and operations staff perform significant work behind the scenes to enable remote work and remote oral argument to proceed without issue.

Fifth District Court of Appeal Is Better Prepared for Potential Service Disruptions in the Future

(Special thanks to Charles R. Crawford, Marshal)

One of the things we learned is that we can do remote work for extended periods of time, without productivity suffering. Our past plans for remote or work away from our headquarters usually assumed it would be a short, temporary situation. We never planned for 12 months or more. We thought about tolling orders and temporary closures, but we never anticipated conducting live oral arguments via Zoom. This is something we are all very familiar with now. In the beginning, most of us had not even used Zoom.

We wanted to remain accessible to self-represented litigants who were unable to file electronically, so we devised a way to continue to allow them in-person access to the court, while protecting our staff.

We quickly realized we would have to change the way we did business entirely. We wanted to remain accessible to self-represented litigants who were unable to file electronically, so we devised a way to continue to allow them in-person access to the court, while protecting our staff. We did this by only allowing into the building those persons who had made previous contact with the Clerk’s Office, who made certain they already had their papers in order and were ready to be granted entry. They were then health and security screened by our deputy marshals before being let in. We installed a document camera on the outside of the Clerk’s Office window. The customer would then place each page of their document on the camera, and the deputy clerk on the other side of the glass would scan the document, which was immediately converted to a PDF file and uploaded to the computer. When finished, the person would place the originals in an envelope provided and drop them in a drop box. This worked very well, and we may continue the procedure.

One of the other things we learned is that we need to have a ready inventory of PPE-related supplies on hand. They are very difficult to acquire when the entire world starts looking for them at the same time.

It was also necessary for us to acquire additional technology. As a stopgap, when we sent our non-essential personnel home, we had them take their desk top computer systems with them and we set up a VPN so they could log in from home.

As we near the end of this pandemic, we have become very adept at working under these conditions. While we are all eager to get back to some degree of normalcy, we will be better prepared for future potential service disruptions no matter the cause.

Florida Supreme Court Shares Lessons about Communications and Outreach, Virtual Oral Arguments, and Safety and Security Precautions

(Special thanks to Craig Waters, Tricia Knox, and Emilie Rietow, Public Information Office; John A. Tomasino, clerk of the court; and Silvester Dawson, marshal)

Mr. Craig Waters, Director, Public Information Office:

The Florida State Courts’ effort to plan for pandemics has deep roots. It began in 2002 with the appointment of a court commission by then Chief Justice Charles Wells in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks and the intense media international scrutiny of the Bush v. Gore cases in late 2000. Those plans expanded in 2005 when the state courts heeded federal concerns about a rising threat of pandemics. The comprehensive plans that were created laid the groundwork for the COVID-19 response starting in 2020. While that preparation was a godsend, it did not anticipate every detail—especially the move to remote meetings and the long duration of restrictions on physical court access. One of the big lessons of COVID is that crisis planning is a continuous process that should be updated frequently in light of changing circumstances and evolving technology.

Ms Tricia Knox, Deputy Director, Public Information Office:

It’s essential to have a statewide network of court communicators. FCPIO members worked together, shared information, and contributed to a statewide communications campaign about court operations and safety protocols during the pandemic. The monthly meetings provided an opportunity to share ideas about how courts are handling and responding to pandemic-related issues locally. This sharing of information is critical during times of crisis. The 2016 Communications Plan that FCPIO is charged with implementing had a significant impact on the success of communicating clearly and effectively with our audiences. Never underestimate the need for information about our courts by the public in times of crisis.

Ms Emilie Rietow, Education and Information Administrator, Public Information Office:

Approximately 12,000 students and adults visit the Florida Supreme Court annually for scheduled building tours. Beginning March 13, 2020, the court closed its doors to the public due to the pandemic, and all in-person tours were cancelled per orders from Chief Justice Charles Canady. In order to continue providing outreach to the public, the Public Information Office began conducting live, virtual tours to student and adult groups in April 2020 and has continued to do so throughout the ongoing pandemic. Hundreds of teachers have signed up for the virtual tours for their students as a way of affording them an opportunity to “see” the courtroom and other public areas of the building via Zoom. The students have a rare opportunity to verbally ask or chat questions to staff about the judicial branch, making the virtual tour interactive between students and the court. Several justices have participated in the live virtual tours and have enjoyed the convenience of reaching the public virtually.

Mr. John A. Tomasino, Clerk of Court

By the end of March 2020, it was clear that an innovative approach would be necessary to continue the court’s business during the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only did we need to transition approximately 100 employees to working remotely, but in a bigger challenge, we had to figure out how to conduct virtual oral arguments in less than a month. These virtual oral arguments would involve multiple parties and multiple cases, with five (at that time) justices spread throughout the state.

The court was lucky to have the assistance of two incredible technical support folks, Tyler Teagle and Devin Jones. We also relied heavily on our district court of appeal partners in Florida, as well as the National Center for State Courts and the National Conference of Appellate Court Clerks. At first, a good portion of our days included watching other states and the district courts hold their first and subsequent oral arguments. We debated on listservs the pros and cons of the various platforms. We all learned from each other and shared tips and tricks along the way.

We were fortunate to build on the work that Public Information Officer Craig Waters and his team had been doing, livestreaming the court’s oral arguments to the public on a multitude of platforms. This facilitated providing a digital feed to our fantastic partner, WFSU, allowing us to focus on presenting the most seamless production possible. Streaming directly to WFSU’s existing web and social media channels also meant the public had live access with full closed captions, but hackers could not disrupt the Zoom portion of the proceedings.

One method that contributed to our success was approaching the oral arguments like a theater production. Thanks to Mr. Teagle’s undergraduate background in theater, he knew how to create a “run of show,” detailing who would be doing what and when, sometimes down to the minute. During the virtual oral arguments, both Mr. Teagle and Mr. Jones had to promote and demote attorneys, converse with WFSU technicians to know when to go live and when to go on short breaks, and continuously monitor the audio and video performance of the justices and attorneys. They had their hands full, but thanks to careful planning, detailed documentation, and excellent partners, we were successful. I have to admit, however, that the first full day of virtual oral arguments, May 6, 2020, was the most stressful day I’ve experienced as the clerk of court.

I’m hopeful we will be able to continue to utilize the skills we learned and incorporate some of these new technologies as part of the “new normal” post-pandemic.

Mr. Silvester Dawson, Marshal

After a public health emergency was declared in Florida, Chief Justice Charles Canady communicated to all courts to mitigate COVID-19’s impact on the courts and court participants while keeping the courts open to the fullest extent safely possible. As Florida courts quickly begin to adjust and alter their business practices, so too was the Florida Supreme Court’s Court Emergency Management Group (CEMG) meeting and planning to determine the implications that restricted access to the Supreme Court building would have on the court and OSCA missions. The Supreme Court Marshal, Silvester Dawson, and staff immediately identified protocols to allow for restricted building access while maintaining and supporting essential functions. Safety and security were drivers of all facility matters.

With access to the building being restricted, Marshal Dawson implemented a “Front Door Business” plan whereby court filing and other document deliveries could be received by deputy marshals charged with securing the front entrance. Clerk’s Office personnel or other appropriate essential workers would then be summoned to retrieve documents/packages from deputy marshals to be processed.

There was a lot known about COVID-19 in the earlier weeks of the pandemic; however, there was a lot yet to be learned about this extremely dangerous respiratory killer. Being able to secure and maintain the Supreme Court facility and OSCA annex building meant protecting deputy marshals and maintenance staff from any possible infection and spread that could potentially leave the court with little to no one available to work. So, during the peak of the pandemic, Marshal Dawson divided his staff into teams and implemented a squad-A/squad-B concept. Any squad that was not at the facility was given training assignments, office work, and other necessary duties to perform remotely.

Breakroom tables and chairs were removed, and other gathering areas in the building were rearranged to prevent close person-to-person contact. Masks, face shields, gloves, and other protective gear were donned by Marshal’s Office staff and disseminated to essential Supreme Court employees who could not work remotely. Oral arguments were conducted by the Supreme Court digitally with video technology.

Contaminations were mitigated by a quick and effective cleaning and disinfectant plan. With the help and cooperation of essential Supreme Court and OSCA employees, the mission and services to Florida citizens have been uninterrupted and effective throughout the pandemic. By developing branch-wide policies and procedures for managing COVID-19 threats and the myriad of emergencies that can disrupt court operations, we have successfully weathered the storm. Supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE) are now easier to acquire, so we must develop a mindset of the Scout’s motto, “Be Prepared.”

Office of the State Courts Administrator Reflects on the Virtues of Flexibility, Adaptability, and Clear Direction

(Special thanks to Paul Flemming, Public Information Officer)

Traditionally, court is a place you go to; when you go to that building, certain things happen to protect liberties and rights,” said Roosevelt Sawyer, state courts technology officer. Now, “instead of seeing court as a building, I began to see it as ‘court as a service.’ I think ‘court as a service’ is a mindset you will see continue to grow.

State Courts Administrator Lisa Kiel has seen challenging times for the judicial branch during her long tenure serving judges and staff of the State Courts System and leading the Office of the State Courts Administrator (OSCA).

Hurricanes. Terrorist attacks. The Great Recession.

But none of that experience prepared her for what she saw coming in February 2020 and what became reality in the first days of March.

“The lesson learned for me is you can’t underestimate the enormity of a crisis,” Kiel said. “We could not have understood how it was going to unfold and what it was going to require.”

The public health emergency required suspending jury trials, ending all but the most essential in-person court events, and the nearly complete migration of a statewide workforce to remote work. The enormous and unique challenges posed by the pandemic were met thanks to a forgiving approach, a solid plan, and the benefit of crucial decisions made correctly early on.

Much seems clearer in hindsight, but those early lessons indicate the challenges faced by the unknown nature of the pandemic.

“Just go ahead and take everything you need from your office and make long-term plans now,” said Kris Slayden, manager of the OSCA’s Resource Planning & Support Services Unit. “You’re not coming back in a week.”

Chief of General Services Steven Hall said flexibility is key.

“Roll with it! The science will evolve,” Hall said. “The data will change. This week’s best practice will be next week’s outdated idea. Learn from history, but every new situation will be different and must be managed with flexibility.”

That’s acquired knowledge now. At the time, Chief Justice Charles Canady and Kiel recognized much was unknown and a response to the pandemic would necessarily evolve.

“The reality is we cannot envision everything we’ll be confronted with. We will do our best to be ahead of the curve instead of behind it,” Canady said to members of the Court Emergency Management Group on March 11, 2020. “We’re going to keep learning and monitoring the information that’s coming from the state and local authorities. Health and safety of judges and court staff as well as the health and safety of those who come before us is a priority.”

Now, more than 15 months later, Kiel credits Canady’s approach to getting through a rough transition for the nation and Florida’s courts.

“In the beginning, it was problem after problem. [Chief Justice Canady] said to me, ‘There are going to be mistakes. We will do the best we can and just go with our best judgment,’” Kiel said. “That was really freeing.”

Many mistakes were avoided. Choosing Zoom as the platform for remote work and remote court events has proven a boon. State Courts Technology Officer Roosevelt Sawyer, Jr., said it wasn’t a foregone conclusion.

The entire Office of Information Technology team, Sawyer said, was working to immediately bolster and expand the infrastructure necessary to support remote work on a massive scale.

“The first weekend…on a Saturday afternoon, we had a Microsoft Teams meeting. It was a disaster,” Sawyer said. “I told them Teams is not going to work for us. We knew we were going to need a nimbler platform.”

Hetal Patel, Information Systems Manager, had lobbied for approval to get a number of Zoom licenses months before. He liked the video platform and had contacts with the company as a result of his earlier curiosity. More than 1,700 licenses were acquired and distributed. From March 2020 to March 2021, more than 250,000 Zoom meetings were held involving more than 3.2 million participants.

“Once we, as OSCA, handled the administrative side of getting the licenses and distributing them, the (Court Technology Officers) really took it over on the ground,” Sawyer said. “They were really handling the support role with judges.”

Kiel said the branch’s network of chief judges, trial court administrators, and chief technology officers was critical. She said reactions from chief judges after the successful rollout of Zoom revealed how monumental the task was. They marveled that “We figured out how to do in two weeks what we’ve been arguing about for years about not being able to do,” Kiel said.

Video, network support, and equipment all require resources. The OSCA’s role in supporting the judicial branch followed a guiding principle that is a lesson for times of crises in future.

“Get emergency money to the trial courts as soon as possible, with as much flexibility as possible,” Slayden said. Doing so was essential to convert to remote court proceedings, which was a necessity of the infectious nature of the health emergency.

Kiel said she asked Tina White, Chief of OSCA’s Innovations & Outreach unit, to draft a plan for an advisory body to study the needs of the courts and how their missions could be accomplished. Kiel said the skills and talents of the judges on the Workgroup on the Continuity of Court Operations and Proceedings During and After COVID-19 were vital, as were the contributions of outside stakeholders.

“The skill and expertise of the community working around the state in the judiciary are incredible. They have experience we don’t,” Kiel said. “We needed a largely judicial workgroup with outside participants. It has been one of the best workgroups. It has the right combination of people.”

They faced a daunting task, but clear direction from Chief Justice Canady.

“In this branch, more than 1.5 million members of the public are summonsed annually to its courthouses to serve as jurors subject to fines and contempt of court for failure to appear,” White said. “This branch has the highest moral and legal obligations to protect them and the litigants it serves.”

Canady and his administrative orders stayed focused on the courts continuing to do the work of justice. During the most active part of the public health emergency, from March 2020 through April 2021, more than 3.1 million cases were disposed by Florida’s judges.

“We have learned that many court proceedings can be fairly and effectively conducted through remote means in a manner that produces a time and cost savings to counsel and litigants,” White said.

It was not just court events that went remote. Support work did as well, and other areas of the OSCA’s mission carried on, including judicial education and the way we reimagined how it is performed, according to Chief of Court Education Rose Patterson.

“The adaptation to virtual content delivery and virtual court proceedings. Those genies are not going back in the bottle,” Patterson said. “From an education standpoint, we have proven that there is a place for distance learning in our delivery system.”

The use of remote technology may prove to be even more than a logistical revolution, post-pandemic. It could change the way courts are seen and justice is perceived.

“Traditionally, court is a place you go to; when you go to that building, certain things happen to protect liberties and rights,” Sawyer said. Now, “instead of seeing court as a building, I began to see it as ‘court as a service.’ I think ‘court as a service’ is a mindset you will see continue to grow.”

There are further clear lessons learned shaping the future of work in the OSCA as well. Kiel said OSCA staff have remained remarkably productive and effective, an outcome she attributed in large part to the persistent and creative efforts of managers to maintain a connection among staff, both with each other professionally but also with OSCA culture and values. The recently completed OSCA Post-Pandemic Workforce Plan maps out a way of working with options not considered before February 2020. OSCA staff will work in a central office, fully remote, or in a mix of the two, depending on job requirements and agreement of managers.

But OSCA is not done learning lessons from the pandemic.

“We will continue to evolve,” Kiel said. “Six months out, we will need to take a hard look at what’s going on.”

Last Modified: July 07, 2021