By Noreen Marcus, FloridaBulldog.org
A super-sized jury trial about leaky fire sprinklers in a high-rise will start May 3 somewhere in Miami-Dade County — but not in a courthouse.
The venue may be a hotel ballroom, a church auditorium or a stage meant for plays, concerts or ballets. A Coral Gables church and, in downtown Miami, the Knight Concert Hall and the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts have been scouted.
So far, there’s no plan to repurpose an orchestra pit as a jury box, but you never know.
In this age of COVID-19, creative legal minds are identifying and conforming spaces to accommodate all the people, social distancing and equipment that will be needed when jury trials resume on March 1 in Miami-Dade state courts. They stopped nearly a year ago on March 12.
For Patrick Montoya, a lawyer for homeowners at the 452-condo Latitude on the River in the Brickell area, finding an alternate site for the defective-sprinkler trial presents an unusual challenge.
An involuntary event planner
Montoya said last week he’s closing in on a deal with one of two places that meet or exceed his threshold: enough open space to host 50 to 55 people, including 30 lawyers.
He finds himself operating outside his familiar wheelhouse.
“I don’t plan events, that’s not what I do,” said Montoya of the firm Colson Hicks Eidson. His co-counsel is Jason Rodgers-da Cruz of Siegfried Rivera.
“We want to get our case to trial as soon as possible, so it was incumbent on me to do it,” Montoya said. The litigation began in 2016 and total damages could top $50 million, he said, adding that the building still has life-safety issues.
No one in the state court system has the job of finding exotic venues and there’s no money available to rent them. Asked whether he expects public-spirited donations of private space, Montoya laughed.
“I expect a we-need-business discount,” he said. The Latitude trial is expected to last an entire month, making it attractive to sales people in Miami’s depressed tourism and entertainment industries. It’s a buyer’s niche market.
Zoom hearings fill a void
The pandemic is burdening the Miami-Dade court system with far greater logistical problems than negotiating for one sizable civil trial. The backlog number is constantly changing, but court records show that as of the end of May, 1,558 trials scheduled for the previous three months had failed to materialize.
Not that justice was denied. Over the past year, the state’s largest circuit had 323,554 Zoom hearings, Miami-Dade Chief Judge Bertila Soto said in an interview with Florida Bulldog.
“We’re working harder than we ever did,” she said. “Things take longer, getting accustomed to technology takes a while.” The elevators in the 1920s-era main courthouse on Flagler Street are so small and slow, it can take a half-hour to transport all trial participants to an upstairs courtroom.
About 30 to 40 cases were queued up to be tried on March 1 as of last week, according to Soto.
Deciding who goes first is an intricate dance. Speedy trial rules put criminal cases at the head of the line, but economic and other stakes on the civil side can also be life-changing. A scheduled trial date provides a deadline and an incentive to settle or enter a plea, thinning the caseload over time.
One trial, three courtrooms
Soto and Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jennifer Bailey, who runs the civil division, explained that each trial will require three courtrooms – one for the jury room, one for additional lawyers and witnesses, and one for the actual trial.
“It’s not three courtrooms because we want it to be three courtrooms,” Bailey said. “The preeminent value that we have to apply here is making sure we’re absolutely in compliance with public safety guidelines for everybody involved.”
The vast majority of trials are much smaller than the Latitude crowd, with no more than a few parties and a handful of lawyers. Bailey said the cutoff for using regular courtrooms is 37, including lawyers, jurors and essential personnel like the judge, court reporter and bailiff. Anyone who wants a bigger trial must provide a location.
If there’s extra space in a courtroom, the media and public will be allowed inside. Otherwise, they’ll have to watch the proceedings remotely.
Judges are concerned about the fear of COVID-19 suppressing the number of potential jurors, lawyers and court workers who are willing to go to court and perform their civic duty, represent their clients and do their jobs.
The new trial normal
“We all wish that we could go back to the way things were two years ago. We recognize the huge impact this has had,” Bailey said. “We can’t make that happen.”
“Folks who want trials need to recognize they’re gonna be competing for judicial attention and time with what is expected to be a tsunami of pandemic-generated cases due to the economic consequences of the pandemic,” she said, referring to an expected uptick in evictions and foreclosures.
Still, Bailey said, “We are confident we can deliver a safe, fair, just trial if the lawyers will bring us their cases and let us do our jobs.”
Despite the challenges, Montoya said he’s optimistic about upcoming trials.
“I do not accept that we cannot get back to jury trials,” he said. “They’re essential to commerce, they’re essential to our democracy–on the criminal side, even more so.”
Citing the relatively swift production of coronavirus vaccines, he said, “of course we can do this. We’ve got to get it done, it’s the challenge of our time.”