Coronavirus: Courts limited to ‘essential proceedings’

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Under order of the Florida Supreme Court, the Third Judicial Circuit is ceasing all non-essential proceedings, the chief judge wrote in a Wednesday memo, a move that will affect operations at the Columbia County Courthouse and several others. 

“On March 17, 2020, the Florida Supreme Court issued Administrative Order SC20-15,” wrote the circuit’s chief judge, Mark Feagle.”This Order is an updated response to the threat of COVID-19. It instructed all circuit and county courts to ‘continue to perform essential court proceedings.’ However, if a matter is deemed ‘non essential,’ the Third Judicial Circuit courts, not the courthouses, are effectively closed.”

Essential proceedings include first appearances; bond hearings; criminal arraignments; juvenile shelter hearings, injunctions for domestic violence, stalking and similar offenses; risk protection orders; Baker Act cases; family law cases where the imminent safety of a child is an issue; requests for search and arrest warrants; Adult Protective Service Act proceedings; proceedings involving “do not resuscitate” orders; emergency incapacity petitions and the appointment of guardians; extraordinary writs; and any other “emergency” proceeding or hearing authorized by the chief judge, including “jail pleas and admissions by incarcerated defendants via electronic communication.”

The circuit must also handle “critical proceedings related to the state of the emergency,” according to the Florida Supreme Court’s order.

Proceedings that can be held by teleconference or other electronic means can still function, Feagle wrote.

“Currently, our judges and staff are working diligently to implement various means of remote access to address as many matters as possible during this time,” Feagle wrote. “Everyone’s continued patience and cooperation are greatly appreciated.”

The measures will be in effect until March 27 and may be extended beyond that date, Feagle wrote.

The Third Circuit covers Columbia, Dixie, Hamilton, Lafayette, Madison, Suwannee and Taylor counties. 

Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady wrote the five-page order, which came out Tuesday. 

“Each chief judge shall review cases and court events and the communications technology resources available to the circuit, each county, and each judge,” the order said. “The chief judge shall issue directives to the judges of the respective circuit and county courts to reschedule, postpone, or cancel all non-essential and non-critical court proceedings and events unless the chief judge determines that such other specific proceedings or events can be effectively conducted remotely using telephonic or other electronic means available in the subject jurisdiction without the necessity of in-person court appearances.”

The order went further than a directive Canady issued last week as the court system deals with the highly contagious virus known as COVID-19. That March 13 order, in part, suspended grand-jury proceedings, jury selections and criminal and civil jury trials through March 27.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court also announced that its oral arguments scheduled for April would be postponed until June.

Similarly, the state’s district courts of appeal have taken steps such as canceling oral arguments in the coming weeks.

“Because of ongoing concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic, the First District Court of Appeal has postponed or canceled all oral argument sessions scheduled through the end of April,” Chief Judge Stephanie Ray wrote in a message posted on the website of the Tallahassee-based 1st District Court of Appeal, which hears cases from across North Florida. “The panel (of judges) assigned to hear each affected case will determine whether to reschedule the oral argument or to decide the case without oral argument.”

The News Service of Florida contributed to this story.