July 26, 2021

A message from Chief Judge Charles E. Roberts

I recently issued Administrative Order 2021-15.2 regarding the requirement of face masks for unvaccinated individuals entering Twelfth Judicial Circuit court facilities, effective Monday, July 26, 2021.

Due to the alarming increase in COVID-19 cases in Florida (as outlined in the order), I felt that some added safeguards needed to be put in place on a temporary basis. With certain exceptions outlined in the order, people who are not fully vaccinated will have to wear a mask while in the courthouses. The science clearly demonstrates that unvaccinated people are more likely to catch the virus and, if infected, more likely to transmit the virus than vaccinated people. And the Delta variant, largely responsible for the increased numbers, is extremely contagious.

Jurors unable to comply with this requirement should contact the jury coordinator in their county; the phone number is listed on your jury summons. All other unvaccinated individuals who refuse to comply with this requirement will be denied entry into the courthouse and their absence at a court hearing under these circumstances will be considered an unexcused absence with risk of consequences.

Please understand that my sole objective in issuing this order is to protect the public and the people who work in the courthouses.

I certainly hope that the upward trend will reverse in the near future and that we will soon be able to return to full normalcy.

Best regards,
Charlie Roberts


Prior messages from Chief Judge Kimberly C. Bonner (April 2020-June 2021)

Chief Justice Canady recently issued an administrative order AOSC21-17 that eliminates all requirements for social distancing and face coverings as of June 21. This new order also vacates most of his prior COVID-related administrative orders. Suspension of rules of procedure and judicial administration that would otherwise prohibit remote court proceedings remains in effect, although we do not know for how long. For those who wish to wear a face covering, they are permitted to do so and we will continue to make them available. Our COVID administrative orders will be rescinded as of June 21st.

We are still permitted and encouraged to conduct hearings remotely as may be appropriate and convenient for the parties. Judges may continue to use remote proceedings as they have been doing unless and until procedural rule reinstatements prohibit them. Because our hearings are often scheduled several weeks or even months in advance, there are many cases previously set to occur after June 21st that are scheduled to be heard using remote technology. I have instructed the judges to ensure that their division information on hearings post June 21st is consistent and up to date. Our website and JACS will also provide current information on scheduling for each division so that parties know how their hearings will be conducted.

We anticipate that there will be some transition time before we are 100% in person because many parties have been noticed to appear remotely and we do not want to create more confusion by simply assuming they will appear in person based on news reports. Many judges will be issuing amended trial orders or notices for cases scheduled later in 2021 and many divisions will keep using Zoom for certain proceedings that the Bar members and their clients have found efficient and convenient. There are several procedural rule changes currently under consideration by the supreme court, and I do expect that some rules will be permanently amended to allow for greater use of technology in many divisions of court.

I also want to remind those attorneys who practice in the criminal division that it will not be possible to “flip the switch” seamlessly on June 21 and proceed in person as we did pre-COVID. There are a few reasons for this, which vary from county to county, and include personnel issues, limited jail video feeds, and jail quarantine procedures that are still in effect. As we transition back to in person court events, this is will mean a gradual reduction in the number of available jail video feeds. Please do not assume a last minute request for an add on for inmate transport or for a jail feed can be honored. These first few weeks will almost certainly bring some confusion and frustration, but as we have over the last fifteen months, we will get through it.

A year ago it seemed like an easy enough proposition that we’d simply reopen and continue as normal after what we hoped would be a short interruption. Now that things have been scheduled months in advance using Zoom, and after we have completely pivoted to a process that we now must un-assemble, it won’t be quite as easy as simply reopening.

On behalf of all of the judges and staff of the 12th Circuit, I want to thank our bar members, their clients and the community for their patience, courtesy and collaboration during the last year. We are truly blessed to work in the best circuit in the state. Without your willingness to embrace new technology and work together to get cases resolved, we could never have kept our doors open, virtually or otherwise. We owe all of you a huge debt of gratitude.

In Phase 2, in-person proceedings are limited to mission essential cases or hearings otherwise approved by the Chief Judge. To date, we have been addressing these other cases on a case-by-case basis, requiring a motion showing good cause.

The easing of certain protocols by the Chief Justice has allowed us to approve scheduling certain proceedings without the need for a motion and approval of the Administrative or Chief Judge. This new procedure will be effective May 24, 2021.

Social distancing is still required along with face masks in the actual courtroom, so judges and magistrates must account for the number of persons expected to be in the hearing before scheduling in-person proceedings, and must stagger their in-person dockets to ensure compliance with social distancing. Therefore, mass dockets such as case management or small claims pretrial hearings must continue remotely until further notice.

The following hearings are permitted in person, subject to the other requirements of the AO:

  • Criminal evidentiary hearings (including, but not limited to, Sentencing, Motions to Suppress/Stand Your Ground)
  • Motions to Compel Fingerprints/DNA
  • Out-of-custody pleas
  • Delinquency trials
  • Dependency trials
  • Criminal non-jury trials
  • Traffic fatality hearings

Other requests for in-person hearings will continue to follow the motion and order process that has been in place.

These hearings must comply with existing mask and social-distancing protocols. If it is determined that available courtroom space is inadequate to impose social distancing with all attendees, then the hearing must be done remotely.

Lastly, in another step toward a return to full operations, deposition rooms in the courthouses will be open as of Monday, May 24, 2021.

This week we take a giant step toward a return to full court operations. Chief Justice Canady removed the mandatory health screening requirement, and social distancing and mandatory masks are now only required during in-person court proceedings, although those are still limited due to Phase 2 protocols.

We’ve updated the court’s COVID-19 news page to include links to the most recent supreme court orders, including local Administrative Order 2020-12c.02 to reflect these changes. Find all AOs related to the COVID-19 pandemic on the court’s COVID-19 news page.

Although fever checks, health screenings and masks are no longer required to enter and or move about in the public spaces of court buildings, we encourage wearing masks indoors, particularly if you are or live with a high-risk individual and have not been fully vaccinated.

We are looking forward to and planning for our post-COVID court buildings. Although we are still in Phase 2 of court operations, the shift away from safety protocols outside of in-person court proceedings is a clear and positive indication that the worst is behind us.

Please consider following @12circuitFL on Twitter and Instagram for announcements regarding updates to Twelfth Judicial Circuit court operations.

In preparation for expanded, in-person proceedings and moving to Phase 3, Twelfth Judicial Circuit Court leaders met this week with health officials from DeSoto, Manatee and Sarasota counties to discuss the pandemic and safety protocols.

Governor DeSantis has removed the state of emergency brought about by the coronavirus, and the CDC has announced that fully vaccinated people can gather outdoors without a mask. However, court proceedings take place indoors, which limits the number of persons who can be in the courthouse. While we’re grateful for some return to normalcy, the fight is not yet finished and court operations must remain in Phase 2 for everyone’s health and safety.

Judges and court staff are all anxious to reopen and have fewer restrictions such as social distancing, but we are required to follow the science and recommendations of these experts as well as directives from the Supreme Court.

Court leaders are closely monitoring community health data and the vaccine’s availability. We’ve also been working behind the scenes this past year, and when the moment arrives for a safe reopening, the Twelfth Judicial Circuit Court is prepared and will have an operations plan ready to go.

Masks and health screening protocols are still required to enter court buildings. If you are sick or have been exposed to someone who has been diagnosed with COVID-19 and you have a court date or jury duty, please stay home and contact your attorney or clerk’s office to discuss your next steps.

Court operational phases
  • Phase 1 – in-person contact is inadvisable, court facilities are effectively closed to the public, and in-person proceedings are rare;
  • Phase 2 – in-person contact is authorized for certain purposes but requires use of protective measures;
  • Phase 3 – an effective vaccine is adequately available and in use and in-person contact is more broadly authorized; and
  • Phase 4 – COVID-19 no longer presents a significant risk to public health and safety.
Resources

Reliable, verifiable information is critical when dealing with a public health emergency. Not all sources of news and information share these characteristics. Use your best judgment when relying on a website or other source for information. Below are a few reliable, verifiable sources of information related to COVID-19:

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.