June 8, 2020

As you know, the Florida Supreme Court has issued several Administrative Orders related to the court reopening plan and other COVID-19 related policies. Similar to the state as a whole, this reopening is divided into phases. It is important for members of the public, lawyers, and litigants, to understand that the court phases do not necessarily line up with other statewide phases or business reopenings. Our reopening is governed by the orders from the Florida Supreme Court. They are not independently developed by county or circuit. Whereas people voluntarily choose to go to certain private businesses or other public places, for the most part, they are in a courthouse because they are compelled to be there. These public buildings are challenging to maintain and keep clean, even in the absence of a pandemic, and we must be able to assure everyone who enters our court facilities that we are taking all possible measures to make sure not only that they are physically safe, but that we are not exposing them to the virus.

The Supreme Court’s current required benchmarks for proceeding to Phase 2 include many factors beyond our control, such as an overall decline in COVID-19 numbers within a county over a 14-day period. Two of our three counties have experienced a spike in COVID-19 numbers within the past week. This will delay our ability to meet the benchmark. Other requirements for conducting more in person hearings during phase 2, including jury trials, are temperature and health screenings. The latter requires our county partners to assist and we have been working diligently to get the equipment and personnel necessary.

As a means to get us closer to Phase 2, I issued an administrative order last week setting out mandatory use of personal protective equipment (PPE) starting June 8, and mandatory health screenings in all court facilities beginning June 15. These dates were set with the expectation that the screening resources would have been obtained by June 15, and there is still the possibility that by the end of next week, everything will be secured to begin these screenings. There is, however, also a possibility that our screening resources will take longer to implement and that this protocol may be delayed.

Even when these measures are in place, we cannot go to Phase 2 until I can certify to the Supreme Court that we’ve met ALL of the necessary benchmarks. Until we can, we will still be in Phase 1, with limited in-person proceedings, use of PPEs and mandatory health screens. This will still enable us to begin tackling our criminal docket backlog, as well as some other matters, but with the added restriction of social distancing and use of PPEs/screening. This means we cannot hold in-person criminal arraignments or pleas for out-of-custody defendants until all the mandatory health screens are in place.

The COVID-19 situation changes daily, and sometimes hourly, and it can be frustrating and confusing to watch the state “reopen” when we are not. I will do my best to keep everyone informed on our progress.

Thank you.

Administrative orders (AO2020-12.02, AO2020-13.01) were entered for the 12th Circuit that address our procedures going forward as we continue to work toward meeting the benchmarks that will allow us to permit more in-person hearings. It is important to remember the following during this process:

We are currently in Phase 1, where very few proceedings are allowed in person and most cases are heard using remote technology, or postponed altogether.

Under the Florida Supreme Court’s orders, the following benchmarks must be met before any court can transition from Phase 1 to Phase 2, which expands in-person activities:

  1. No confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 in the court facility within a 14-day period; or if confirmed or suspected cases have occurred in the court facility, deep cleaning and disinfecting of exposed areas and applicable employee self-quarantine actions have been implemented.
  2. Rescission of local and state restrictive movement and/or stay-at-home orders.
  3. Improving COVID-19 health conditions over a 14-day period in the community, including conditions such as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases and related deaths in relation to a community’s population density, downward trajectory of positive tests as a percent of total tests, size of particularly vulnerable populations, and availability of medical facilities including emergency and intensive care capacity.
  4. Adequate testing programs in place, increased availability of COVID-19 tests, and emerging antibody testing.
  5. Consultation with other building occupants (for multi-tenant courthouses or buildings) and with justice system partners (including, but not limited to clerk of court, state attorney, public defender, law enforcement, local bar, and others necessary to resume certain case types, such as the Department of Children and Families).

It is important to ensure capacity exists for increasing or modifying operations and that all health and safety concerns are met.

As you can see, many of these benchmarks are outside our control. This means that Phase 2 will begin at different times in different counties throughout the state. The expiration of previous Executive or Administrative Orders does not automatically entail that court proceedings will go “back to normal” on any given date. Transitioning from Phase 2 to Phase 3 will entail even more in person proceedings, but again, we cannot provide a guaranteed period for this to occur. What we must do is ensure that our safety protocols and reopen procedures adequately protect the public who enter our facilities.

To that end, the order entered today implements the Florida Supreme Court’s standards for screening and use of personal protective equipment. Although very few cases are being heard in person at this time (Phase 1) I have nonetheless implemented the PPE requirements, which would be mandatory in any event to proceed to Phase 2.

In candor, the personnel and cost issues of the screening protocol are daunting. We have been and will continue to work with our partners in the counties and the Office of State Courts and are optimistic that we will have them in place so that we can get to Phase 2 as quickly and as safely as possible.

In the meantime, I want to thank our Court Administration staff, who have been working tirelessly and mostly behind the scenes to make sure we are ready to implement the orders as they are handed down from the Supreme Court. I can assure you we are doing everything within our power to keep our courthouses open for business and safe for all to enter.

Thank you for your patience and cooperation.

As many of you are aware, the Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court issued an Administrative Order that extends the time limits on face-to-face court proceedings until June 1, 2020, and suspends jury trials until July 1, 2020. This has raised many questions about what court proceedings will look like after June 1. As part of the process of fully reopening face-to-face court proceedings, a statewide work group, of which I am a member, is gathering data and drafting recommendations and guidelines for the Chief Justice’s consideration. In the meantime, we will continue to develop protocols to ensure public health through practices such as social distancing as we begin the process of bringing back larger volume dockets.

How this will look in practice is something for which that I have no guarantees; however, at a minimum, I expect many civil, family, and probate/guardianship matters, will continue to use remote technology for the near future. Where available and feasible, and to never compromise due process rights, I anticipate remote technology will be with us for several months in almost every division. Due process cases (including criminal, dependency, domestic violence, and juvenile) will get priority as we phase in face-to-face proceedings. Those of us who work in other divisions will likely have to wait our turn to see a full reinstatement of in-person proceedings, including trials. For civil practitioners, although I wish I had a barometer of when civil jury trials will recommence, it is impossible to give an accurate estimate at this time.

We expect the Chief Justice to begin issuing Administrative Orders with guidelines and limitations around the middle of this month. These Administrative Orders will take the courts beyond June 1 and answer many questions. Please know we are planning for the resumption of in-person court proceedings in a way that guarantees access to courts while being ever mindful of public safety. To the extent we can use technology to accomplish this, we will continue to do so. Finally, we do not intend to overlook self-represented litigants, or others who have limited access to technology; therefore, any long-term plan to get cases adjudicated will necessitate continued collaboration on ways to provide easier access to court proceedings.

Thank you all for your patience and cooperation. I know none of us anticipated 2020 would be so challenging, but by working together, we will ensure that our courts remain open for business and that access to justice is not unduly delayed.

The 12th Circuit is committed to providing timely access to the courts during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although our current restrictions under the Florida Supreme Court’s Administrative Order prohibit us from conducting face-to-face hearings in many cases, including civil, family, and probate, we have implemented processes that allow us to handle most matters remotely. Zoom is the video platform we are currently utilizing. In addition, because many litigants and attorneys do not have that technology available, we are also conducting hearings via conference call or by other available means. If you let us know your needs, we will find a way for you to appear and be heard.

We understand that coming to court in a virtual fashion is not the norm, and is not ideal; however, we strongly believe that every case deserves to be considered without undue delay. There will be some cases that must be postponed until we are completely open for regular operations, but rest assured, we have been getting our re-open plans ready to implement so that those postponed cases can be scheduled as soon as possible.

With 32 judges in the circuit, there will inevitably be variations between the divisions on the daily logistics of scheduling and case management. This is always the case, even in the absence of these extraordinary circumstances. Although we strive for a basic level of consistency, each judge ultimately has a great deal of discretion in how to manage their courtroom. We are in constant communication with each other to make sure we are being as responsive and uniform as possible.

For those self represented litigants and defendants who have not yet been appointed or retained counsel, we want to stress that you should 1) keep your address and contact information current by clicking the link and emailing it to our self-help center staff who will notify the clerk’s office; 2) sign up for e-Notify (criminal cases only); and 3) contact the clerk of court if you are unsure about your upcoming court date.

  • DeSoto County Clerk of Court staff can assist by email, phone at (863) 993-4876, or fax at (863) 993-4669
  • Manatee County Clerk of Court staff can assist online, by phone at (941) 749-1800, or mail at Post Office Box 25400, Bradenton, FL 34206
  • Sarasota County Clerk of Court staff can assist online, by phone at (941) 861-7400, or mail at Post Office Box 3079, Sarasota, FL 34230-3079

There will be hundreds, if not thousands, of notices for court dates sent over the next several weeks. It is imperative that we have good contact information for you. In addition, our county judges are working on a process that would allow out of custody defendants to resolve their cases using Zoom or other technology.

As part of our COVID-19 response, you can read our updated procedures, which includes information on foreclosures, evictions, bond forfeitures, and other issues such as parenting and custody orders as well as procedures for violation of quarantine orders. These procedures will be updated as circumstances warrant.

Finally, thank you for your patience and understanding. We are all frustrated with the limitations of conducting court in a virtual setting, but we are all in this together. Our judges, magistrates, assistants, court administration staff, interpreters, case managers, IT professionals, and court reporters are still reporting for duty and doing their jobs, and we look forward to seeing you in person soon.