Jury trials temporarily suspended because of high level of transmission of COVID-19 in 12th Judicial District

Order in effect as of Aug. 30

Chief Judge Charles Roberts. Image from the 12th Judicial Circuit website

On Aug. 25, Charles E. Roberts, chief judge of the 12th Judicial District, issued an order temporarily suspending all jury trials effective as of Aug. 30.

The district encompasses Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties.

Roberts noted that, as of that date, the three counties continued “to show alarming upward trends in positive COVID-19 cases. The most recent 14-day trend,” he wrote, “shows a 67% increase in all cases in Manatee County, a 49% increase in cases in Sarasota County, and an 87% increase in cases in DeSoto County.”

The order cited The New York Times for those figures, referencing an article titled Tracking Coronavirus in Florida: Latest Map and Case Count.

The order further noted that, between Aug. 13 and Aug. 19, “Florida again led the nation in new cases of COVID-19.” It added, “According to the most recent Florida Department of Health COVID-19 Weekly Situation Report, 150,118 new cases were reported in Florida” during that seven-day period of August, with an average of slightly more than 21,445 new cases per day, “as compared to averaging less than 1,500 new cases per day for the week beginning June 11, 2021, when there were 10,459 reported new cases.”

For that data, Roberts cited the Florida Department of Health’s webpages devoted to COVID-19.

Moreover, he pointed out, with emphasis, that, “in large part due to the Delta variant,” the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) “has determined that the level of community transmission of COVID-19 is HIGH in all three counties in the Twelfth Judicial Circuit.”

When The Sarasota News Leader checked Sarasota County data on the CDC COVID-19 webpages on Sept. 7, it found that the county’s community transmission level still is classified as “High.” Further, the CDC says the positivity rate in the county over the previous seven days was 17.96%, which is higher than the figure that the Florida Department of Health reported in its last weekly update, for the period of Aug. 27 through Sept. 2. The state report put the new case positivity rate at 15.3%, with a count of 2,880 cases in Sarasota County.

The CDC’s total for county cases over the seven days leading up to Sept. 7 was 2,867.

Additionally, the CDC listed 334 new hospital admissions over the previous seven days. However, it noted that that figure was down by 5.92%, compared to the prior seven-day total.

This is information for Sarasota County from the CDC website. Image from www.cdc.gov

Roberts opened his order by pointing out, “The health, safety, and well-being of courthouse visitors, jurors, court employees, and judicial officers are a high priority, and we must continue to take steps to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 on the courts, its participants, and the general public, while fulfilling the court system’s responsibilities for the administration of justice.”

He also explained that the Florida Supreme Court “has authorized the chief judge of each circuit in Florida, if warranted by local health conditions, to have the discretion to determine how best to utilize available court resources and facility space to conduct in-person proceedings. When COVID-19 restrictions were reduced in June following promising health data showing significantly lower infection rates,” Roberts continued, “a large number of people, including prospective jurors (often numbering in the hundreds) returned to the courthouses.”

He added, “However, due to the marked escalation in COVID-19 cases in all three counties within the circuit, it has become necessary once again to temporarily suspend jury trials so that the number of people in each courthouse will be reduced, and to protect jurors from possible exposure to COVID-19. Compelling so many people from the community to report for jury duty and then placing them together in jury assembly rooms or courtrooms for extended periods of time creates too great a risk of COVID-19 exposure and cannot continue under current pandemic conditions.”

The Judge Lynn N. Silvertooth Judicial Center is located on Ringling Boulevard in downtown Sarasota. File photo

On its website, under the heading of How to Protect Yourself & Others, the CDC offers the following among its recommendations, and in this order:

  • “Get Vaccinated.”
  • “Wear a mask.”
  • Stay 6 feet away from “people who don’t live in your household.”
  • “Avoid crowds and poorly ventilated spaces,” and “Avoid indoor spaces that do not offer fresh air from the outdoors as much as possible.”
  • “Wash your hands often.”

Roberts did note that cases in which jury panels were scheduled to be selected prior to Aug. 30 “may proceed to jury selection and trial if all parties agree.”

He also pointed out, “A minimum of two weeks’ notice will be publicly provided when the Chief Judge determines that the number of COVID-19 cases has sufficiently declined, and that adequate health and safety protocols are in place such that jury trials can safely resume in each county in the Twelfth Judicial Circuit.”

Roberts has been serving on the Circuit Court bench since January 2003, his 12thJudicial Circuit biography says. He is a 1977 graduate of Duke University and a 1981 graduate of the American University Washington College of Law. His colleagues elected him unanimously to serve as chief judge, which is an administrative role, for the two-year term that began on July 1 and will end on June 30, 2023, the 12th Circuit website says.

Roberts’ notice is posted on the 12th Judicial Circuit Court’s website in the section devoted to COVID-19 issues.

In fact, when the News Leader checked that website on Sept. 7, it found the following advisory about an incident in Circuit Judge Frederick P. Mercurio’s courtroom in the Manatee County Judicial Center on Aug. 23:

This is the notice about the incident involving Judge Fred Mercurio’s courtroom. Image courtesy 12th Judicial Circuit

Additionally, the pages on the Sarasota County Clerk of the Circuit Court and County Comptroller’s website that provide information about jury services offer both Sarasota and Venice telephone numbers. Whenever notices about jury duty begin to go out again, persons who receive them are instructed to call after 5 p.m. on the day prior to the date they have been instructed to appear at the courthouse.

Recordings on those numbers would include any updated information related to pandemic protocols.

This banner has been maintained in recent weeks on the website of Sarasota County Clerk of the Circuit Court Karen Rushing.

For Sarasota (North County), the number is 941-861-5879; for Venice (South County), it is 941-861-3166.