Just a month ago, Orange County Judge Eric DuBois was still in his courtroom, clad in formal black robes and holding hearings on the docket.
That was before the novel coronavirus pandemic brought jury trials and most face-to-face legal proceedings to a screeching halt in Florida.
Now DuBois hosts video calls with assistant state attorneys and public defenders on the Cisco Meeting App from his office. For informal check-ins, the judge forgoes his robes for a plaid button-down shirt, and they talk about what life will be like when things go back to normal.
“It’s not completely crazy,” DuBois said with a laugh. “Crazy times require crazy measures, and we’ve got to do the best we can with what we’ve got.”
While many places have shut down to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new virus, courthouse operations in the Ninth Judicial Circuit can’t completely close because essential proceedings such as first appearances, bail hearings and domestic violence injunctions need to continue, Orange-Osceola Chief Judge Donald A. Myers Jr. said.
To reduce the number of people in the courthouse, judges from every division have been holding video hearings with attorneys, sometimes on Zoom or Microsoft Teams — and have become comfortable enough that Myers said civil judges will continue using video calls after the pandemic to handle a “cattle call” of lawyers scheduled to appear for pre-trial hearings.
One courtroom hosts a rotating judge, prosecutor and defense attorney to handle the criminal docket.
Orange County Judge Eric DuBois, top left, hosts a video call with attorneys as part of continuing courthouse operations. (Screen capture courtesy of Eric DuBois)
The chief judge said the Florida Supreme Court has given trial courts across the state flexibility on the rules, including allowing them to swear in witnesses over a video connection, which is not ordinarily permitted by law. Limited court operations will continue until at least May 29.
“We have a responsibility,” Myers said. “This is not two weeks away from the courthouse. This is time to go to work and for us to be creative, and explore all of the different ways that we can assist parties and the community with their legal needs.”
Orange-Osceola State Attorney Aramis Ayala is running her office from home, juggling virtual meetings and swapping emails with her executive team, which supervises prosecutors rotating in and out of the courthouse. At the same time, she said she has become a teacher’s aide, lunch lady and principal to her two daughters — a 6-year-old kindergartner and an 8-year-old third-grader — whose schooling has moved online.
“I have to again give myself grace and give them grace,” she said. “Sometimes, I tell them, ‘Listen girls, Mommy needs five minutes,’ and I just need to check out.”
The majority of trial clerks are still working in modified shifts that help them maintain social distancing, with some clerks working in courtrooms by themselves, said Orange County Clerk of Courts Tiffany Moore Russell who, like Ayala, is working from home while watching over her two kids: an 8-year-old third-grader and 11-year-old fifth-grader.
“I love my kids, but teaching is not my ministry,” Moore Russell said. “My third-grader is a very active little boy. ... I set up my laptop and I sit right next to him for his classes. The only time I step away is when I do have some conference calls because I can’t talk and hear [the teacher] as well, so I have to trust that he’s paying attention. It’s our new normal.”
Circuit Judge Elaine A. Barbour, who handles a criminal felony division, faces an added challenge because, unlike civil cases, everything in criminal court must be recorded and documented by a court reporter and trial clerk, which means both have to be in a courtroom with her.
Attorneys can appear remotely, though sometimes they show up in the courtroom wearing face masks or gloves.
“I miss my attorneys,” Barbour said. “I miss going to court every day and calling the cases and having them heard.”
Barbour said there has been a learning curve among judges on using Zoom and Microsoft Teams for video calls because they never had the need, until now.
“Just because we’re not going into the courtroom day-in and day-out doesn’t mean we’re not here working hard on cases,” she said. “We’re not at home doing whatever.”