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As federal jury trials slowly resume, Florida courts still facing many challenges

File Photo (John Starks/Daily Herald via AP, Pool)
File Photo (John Starks/Daily Herald via AP, Pool)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A sign of normalcy returning is returning to Florida courts.

For the first time since the start of the pandemic, jury trials are slowly resuming.

The three cases are the first step towards restarting the justice system, but challenges still remain.

Balancing public health and the constitutional right to a jury trial is at the heart of the challenge facing both federal and state courts.

“You cannot simply shut it down and so by the same token you cannot be reckless, you cannot take unnecessary risks,” said US Attorney for Florida’s Northern District, Lawrence Keefe.

Keefe, has successfully gone forward with two criminal trials this month.

They’re the first in the state since March.

“There was no magic formula or silver bullet,” said Keefe.

Utilizing the safety precautions recommended by the CDC is at the heart of Keefe’s strategy.

“There’s nothing particularly new. Masks, gloves, hand sanitizers, social distancing,” said Keefe.

There’s also progress in state court.

A civil case in Miami used Zoom to select a jury.

Then went forward with an in-person jury trial, taking every precaution including face masks, temperature checks and rearranging the courtroom.

They also allowed jurors to park in the courthouse and set aside two additional courtrooms for jurors to be able to social distance during breaks.

“It was a little bit constraining, but we got the job done and we did get a verdict,” said Judge Beatrice Butchko of Florida’s 11th Judicial Circuit, who oversaw the trial.

The problem facing these early efforts at conducting trials is their scalability. So far there isn’t a great option available.

“We can’t let jurors park in the courthouse for every case. We can’t afford to use three courtrooms for every case,” said Judge Jennifer Bailey, who helped with the logistics of the Miami trial.

One potential solution that has been suggested would be to conduct fully virtual jury trials.

“I think it’s possible, I think it’s a necessary option that we all have to explore,” said Judge Butchko.

Mock virtual trials are being experimented with, but there are questions surrounding the constitutionality of conducting jury trials out of the courtroom.

The Judges we spoke with worry even with a vaccine, it will be quite sometime before the court system is able to get back to its previous capacity for jury trials.

Judge Bailey expects a flood of civil cases related to the pandemic.

There’s also the backlog of cases, which are growing larger each day.