Florida's Chief Justice Charles Canady late Tuesday ordered state circuit court judges to cancel, postpone or reschedule all but "essential" court proceedings. The stricter measures aim to limit the number of people crowding into courtrooms, after lawyers complained of dangerous conditions due to coronavirus. In addition, one courthouse employee in Miami has tested positive for COVID-19.
Most jury trials were already suspended on March 16 for two weeks, but many civil and criminal proceedings were still taking place across the state, despite a public health emergency declared March 1 and more recent official guidance that people practice social distancing and steer clear of crowds larger than 10.
Canady's latest order directs "the chief judge of each circuit court to cancel or postpone court proceedings other than essential proceedings and proceedings critical to the state of emergency and public health emergency."
Hours earlier on Tuesday, Pinellas and Pasco County courts announced new measures to suspend until further notice all drug court proceedings, civil and criminal traffic cases, and violence protection return cases, beginning Monday.
“Where possible, proceedings in mission critical matters shall be accomplished using electronic means… and/or by using social distancing methods,” said the administrative order from the Sixth Judicial Circuit in Pasco and Pinellas counties.
These “mission critical” cases include first appearance hearings, termination of parental rights hearings, issuance of warrants or authorization for wiretaps, and “other time sensitive matters as determined by the judge," it said.
Chief Judge Ronald Ficarrotta of the 13th Judicial Circuit in Hillsborough County also announced sweeping changes Tuesday afternoon that take effect immediately.
“My concern is to minimize the number of people coming into the Hillsborough County Courthouse for the safety of all of our employees, the judges, the lawyers, the litigants, and the citizens of Hillsborough County. So all civil, probate, and family matters will now have to be done telephonically,” Ficarrotta said.
Until further notice, all non-emergency criminal proceedings should be rescheduled to a date after April 20, he said.
The stricter measures come after some defense lawyers expressed concern about crowded courtrooms this week.
On Tuesday morning, a criminal defense attorney who asked to remain anonymous told WUSF in an email:
“Despite all of the recommendations and orders to practice social distancing, I entered the courtroom yesterday astonished that it was packed with people sitting elbow to elbow. This was just one courtroom out of many at the Pinellas County Courthouse. The courtroom had at least 50 defendants in it.
“Between 15 and 20 attorneys were in and out while the assistant state attorneys and assistant public defenders were in the courtroom for several hours. In the hallway outside the courtroom were the people that were obviously sick, coughing, holding tissues in their hand asking for me to please let their attorney know they are outside, for they were in fear of having a warrant issued for their arrest for failure to appear.
“These defendants are out on bond and there is no reason to conduct these hearings when the same could be accomplished in one or two months from now. Pinellas court has taken no measures to limit the amount of people in and out of the courthouse unlike many other jurisdictions like Miami Dade and The ninth judicial circuit - Orlando.”
Haydee Oropesa, a criminal defense attorney in the Tampa area, has also appealed to judges to make changes. As the sole caretaker of her elderly mother, Oropesa said she is especially concerned about being exposed to coronavirus.
“If you start calling the 67 counties or all of the circuits governing those counties, you will see there is a lack of uniformity,” she said.
Delaying many court proceedings could help, she said.
“For our own safety in order to prevent transmittal to other people, and especially those that are in the high risk group, we'd like to try to resolve cases by pushing it out as much as possible," said Oropesa. “And so again, we're behind this crisis.”
According to Ficarrotta, Florida’s judicial system is not easy to simply shut down.
"You know, the court system is a big operation. A big, huge operation. And so it doesn't turn too easily," he said.
Canady's latest directive for Florida courts is here: https://www.floridasupremecourt.org/content/download/631996/7181425/AOSC20-15.pdf