Coronavirus and jury duty: Courts seek to balance safety, service

Civil trials scheduled to take place in Clearwater next week have been postponed. Hillsborough officials are trying to minimize the number of people in court.
Chief Judge Ronald Ficarrotta of the 13th Judicial Circuit Court.
Chief Judge Ronald Ficarrotta of the 13th Judicial Circuit Court. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Published March 12, 2020|Updated March 12, 2020

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The spread of coronavirus might provide a way out of jury duty for some Tampa Bay-area potential jurors, but officials said Thursday they also have an obligation to keep many courts operations running as usual even amid the pandemic.

Civil trials in Florida’s Sixth Judicial Circuit scheduled for next week in Clearwater have been postponed, said Ken Burke, Clerk of the Circuit Court and Comptroller for Pinellas County. Those called for jury duty in those cases have been notified that they don’t have to appear. Discussions on how to handle criminal trials are ongoing, Burke said, but none had been postponed as of late Thursday morning.

Burke’s office has been excusing potential jurors who call with concerns about the virus on a case-by-case basis, he said, but he thought those calls had been fairly rare. And he noted that people will still need his office’s services, which include providing jurors for trials and managing public records.

“If you have a domestic violence injunction, you need to be able to come in and we need to help you,” he said. “If (judges) require jurors for court, we need to provide jurors as best we can.”

Hillsborough Chief Judge Ronald Ficarrotta said he was working with the Clerk of Court, the State Attorney and Public Defender’s offices to minimize the number of people who will need to visit the courthouse in the coming days. They are encouraging parties to appear in court via telephone or other means.

“I don’t anticipate shutting down the courthouse,” Ficarrotta said. “We certainly want to take the appropriate measures while keeping in mind that we’d like to keep the courts open to the fullest extent possible.”

The chief judge said he was also working to determine how many trials were scheduled to begin Monday, with a mind toward minimizing the number of prospective jurors who might need to be called.

“We have urged the chief judge to be sensitive to the needs of our jurors,” said Tom Scherberger, a spokesman for the office of the Hillsborough Clerk of the Circuit Court. “We don’t want anyone coming to court that’s feeling sick. And we don’t want people to be concerned about being in a large group.”

The comparison court officials tend to make is to the preparations that occur for hurricanes. Courts have previously closed or severely limited their operations in advance of an approaching storm.

“It’s a tricky situation because judge’s calendars are complicated,” Scherberger said. “You cancel one thing and it affects all sorts of other things.”

On Wednesday, Florida’s Chief Supreme Court Justice Charles Canady issued an order directing all of the state’s chief judges to continue planning and take necessary “mitigating measures” to address the outbreak. Such measures include the elimination of unnecessary face-to-face contact, the use of sanitary procedures, and use of technology to conduct court business. The order authorizes the chief judges to use state funds to purchase emergency preparedness supplies.

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Paul Flemming, a spokesman for the state courts system, said that operation decisions are largely up to those individual chief judges, but there is constant communication between local and state levels, as well as communication between different agencies, such as the courts and the clerks’ offices.

The courts system has had strategic planning on how to handle pandemics since the 2001 anthrax attacks, Flemming said, and though the courts system has not activated its statewide emergency plan, those concerns “have the greatest attention at the highest levels of court administration.”

Though it’s the clerks’ offices and not the courts system that handles jury service, Flemming said juror safety has been part of the conversations between agencies.

“Citizens are compelled to come to jury duty, so we recognize our responsibility here,” he said. “It’s not just going to a spring training game or a basketball game where you can choose to go or not.”

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