One year ago on March 11, 2020, our world began shutting down. The virus was ripping through society, through Florida, through Miami, and through the REGJB. The Captain posted the first of what would be many court advisories on Covid19 being in the courthouse. We were railing at the judges to shut down the courts, which is something that they would soon do.
Here is part of our post on that very scary day:
Fear is rippling through the REGJB, which is not
surprising since the court system leaders completely ignored our entreaties
weeks ago to scale back the court system.
Stay tuned here and we will keep you updated. Here is what we know:
Judge De La O declared a mistrial in a trial that began on Monday when a person working in the courtroom became ill. That person will be tested if the flu-like symptoms continue for 48 hours. We will keep you updated on this.
There is also an issue with Judge Benevides courtroom/staff.
Tom Hanks has tested positive for covid-19.
The NBA has suspended the season after a player tested positive.
The value in looking back is to learn what we did right and what we did wrong and what were the issues that may have delayed the decision making.
Clearly the issue confronting our Judiciary and Judges Soto (state) and Moore (feds) was how could the courts shut down? We had some limited experience in Miami with shutting down for a few days because of hurricanes, but this was a shut down that had no end in sight. How many of you had Zoom on your computers on March 11, 2020? How many of you had even heard of Zoom?
It took a few days, but our chief judges and the State administrative judges did the heavy lifting. Carlos Martinez and Kathy Rundle worked together (as they should and often do) and they got our creaky 1970's court technology into the second decade of the 21st century and we were soon up and running with virtual hearings. The State worked with the PDs and the defense and the Judiciary to get as many people out of jails as they could safely do. The feds were about to be hit with a Tsunami of compassionate release motions and the fed judges and their clerks went to work researching the law and writing opinions, and saving lives by releasing defendants.
What should come out of this last year are many lessons. First, we can now switch quickly from in person to virtual hearings if needed in the future (and we will need to be able to do so). Second, some form of virtual hearings are here to stay. We need to keep people out of courthouses. The single mom working her third job as a Starbucks barista does not need to miss a day of work to show up for a misdemeanor calendar call. She can step outside and handle it on her phone in ten minutes. Less people coming to court means less crowds, less cars on the road, more work productivity. Civil lawyers (near and dear to our cold, black, heart) should not have to trek in from Kendall for those five minute motion hearings to compel answers to plaintiff and cross-co-plaintiff-intervenor's second set of interrogatories on the slip-n-fall at Fresco-y- Mas.
And finally there is this- our prosecutors and judges should re-think incarceration. On the federal side, many massive sentences to defendants in drug cases were reduced. A young woman sentenced to forty years in at age 30, now at age 60 seemed less of a threat and her further incarceration seemed needless. No good would come out of keeping her in prison for another 10 years. On the state side the need for pre-trial incarceration was dialed back. Any Hollywood-type tragedies emerge from letting some poor homeless guy charged with burglary of an occupied vehicle when he reached inside a car and grabbed a Big Mac out of jail? Did he steal another Whopper?
There was a brief influx of a level of humanity into a criminal justice system that has diligently worked since the 1980s to remove humanity from the decision making process: "I know it's your first offense at age 50 but there is a twenty year minimum mandatory for this drug possession and only the state can waive it...I know the sentence seems harsh counsel, but the potential loss amount was 100 million dollars, and that elevated the guidelines even though your client only was paid five thousand dollars." In both cases the judges then say "there is nothing I can do".
Maybe one lesson of Covid 19 is to give some decision making on sentencing back to judges and away from prosecutors. Our judges surprised everyone by being more than competent to move us through this shut-down year. They kept the courts open; they made tough decisions and they saved lives.
Maybe we should start trusting judges more. (We know, we know...we make a living take cheap shots at those who wear black robes at work. But we tell it like it is).