Coronavirus and the courts: Treasure Coast courthouses operating normally, planning ahead
State courthouses across the Treasure Coast are operating normally this week as judicial officials closely track the new coronavirus COVID-19 and plan for the unknown.
Florida Chief Justice Charles Canady on Wednesday issued an order outlining a first set of guidelines within the state courts system as it confronts COVID-19.
Patty Harris, court administrator for the 19th Judicial Circuit, which includes Martin, Okeechobee, St. Lucie and Indian River counties, said the court system Wednesday was “business as usual,” but it’s gearing up in case that changes as concern about COVID-19 grows.
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“There’s nothing on the imminent horizon that will make any changes to our operations … but we are getting prepared for possible shut down or prioritization of certain cases and that kind of thing,” Harris said. “It’s a balance between protecting and keeping your employees and those they come into contact with safe verses trying to keep operations running.”
No one who works for the court system on the Treasure Coast is suspected of having been exposed to the virus, Harris said.
Canady's order directs courts statewide to begin taking steps to lessen the impact of the virus by using measures like social distancing, sanitary precautions, and conducting business using technology, according to a prepared release.
“The health and safety of those who come into our courthouses and courtrooms seeking justice is a top concern for me, along with that of court staff and judges,” Canady said. “At the same time, the mission-critical work of the courts must continue. Over the years we have done extensive planning for different types of emergencies, including pandemics, so that we can be prepared to continue our work when an event like this one occurs.”
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Canady’s order follows Gov. Ron DeSantis’ declaration of a statewide emergency earlier this week and the World Health Organization’s announcement Wednesday that COVID-19 has become a global pandemic.
Wednesday, the world Health Organization declared a pandemic, which happens when a new disease for which people do not have immunity spreads around the world beyond expectations.
There have been no confirmed cases of the new coronavirus on the Treasure Coast, Florida Department of Health officials said Thursday.
State prosecutors are operating in and out of court as usual, but they’ve got a plan if that changes, said Chief Assistant State Attorney Tom Bakkedahl.
“We’re getting regular updates from the state level and … there are communications taking place between various State Attorney’s Offices,” Bakkedahl said. “So executive directors are all talking about the eventualities and plans that we’ll find ourselves with here in the 19th Circuit.”
Their St. Lucie County offices are the only left that are not paperless operations, which Bakkedahl said makes working from a remote location feasible.
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“Theoretically we could telecommute … our attorneys could figure out how to work from home. They all have laptops and can utilize the courts, our email servers” he said. “But this is going way out — I’m not suggesting we are going to do this — but we have the capability to do that.”
Clerks plan to prevent
Indian River County Clerk of the Circuit Court Jeff Smith said his office is following all precautions recommended by Gov. DeSantis’ office, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and court administrators.
“We’re upgrading what we’ve told our employees, that if they show any signs of illness to stay home and contact their health care provider,” Smith said. “We’re in constant contact with the department of health here and any updates, and we’re encouraging all people to use our electronic means to conduct court business and any financial matters with my office.”
To plan for possible disruption to trials, jury service or other court proceedings, Smith said he and other Treasure Coast court clerks will hold a conference call Tuesday with court administrators to discuss pending court calendars.
Potential jurors, he said, can check their website for updates or use their automated juror phone system.
Carolyn Timmann, Martin County’s clerk of the circuit court and comptroller also is promoting the use of online and phone services to conduct court business.
Employees showing any sign of illness, she said, are told to stay home.
Any juror displaying signs of illness are typically released and that policy won’t change, Timmann said.
Martin County jurors can check the clerk’s website for updates about jury service or call 772-219-4914.
“This is a good opportunity to remind citizens over 70 that they can opt out of jury service if they receive a summons,” she said.
Court clerks in St. Lucie County are taking the same preventative and outreach measures to alert the public.
“The safety and well-being of our customers and deputy clerks are our primary concern,” said St. Lucie Clerk Joe Smith. “We’ll continue to work closely with the county and judicial partners and will notify our customers if we will have any changes in operations or services.”
Melissa E. Holsman is the legal affairs reporter for TCpalm and Treasure Coast Newspapers, and is writer and co-host of Uncertain Terms, a true crime podcast. For in-depth, exclusive and breaking legal affairs coverage be sure to subscribe.