June 10, 2020
On June 3, 2020, the Florida Supreme Court announced a pilot program for “virtual” civil jury trials in Florida. The program will be tested in five of Florida’s twenty judicial circuits. The five circuits were selected by the Court’s Workgroup on Continuity of Court Operations and Proceedings During and After Covid-19. The Workgroup was created by Chief Justice Charles Canady to advise the Court during the pandemic.
The circuits were selected because they vary in size and technological capabilities. Each circuit in the pilot program will utilize a variety of approaches so that the Court can evaluate the effectiveness of different practices.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Florida courts have been limiting in-person court activities. Essential court business has continued with most court activities taking place by telephone or via Zoom. Telephonic hearings are not new to Florida. However, prior to the pandemic, most court business was conducted in person. Attorneys and court personnel believe that remote court hearings will be more commonplace, even after the pandemic is over. Previously, attorneys would often travel to a courthouse, sometimes an hour or more away from their office, for a brief court hearing that might last ten minutes or less. The pandemic is demonstrating that attending these hearings by phone can be more efficient.
Remote jury trials, however, have never been attempted in Florida. The Workgroup has not yet announced any procedural details. Initially, the program will be limited to civil jury trials, like personal injury lawsuits. There is concern that remote criminal trials might violate a criminal defendant’s constitutional rights.