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Florida judge urges lawyers to get out of bed and get dressed for Zoom court cases

A judge in Florida is asking attorneys to get out of bed and put on some clothes before attending court cases via Zoom, after complaining that lawyers have appeared shirtless, still in bed and some even poolside while attending meetings remotely during the stay-at-home order meant to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

In the letter published by the West Bar Association, Broward Circuit Judge Dennis Bailey announced that civil courts have gotten the green light to using Zoom to run dockets and conduct hearings.

“One comment that needs sharing and that is the judges would appreciate it if the lawyers and their clients keep in mind these Zoom hearings are just that: hearings. They are not casual phone conversations,” the letter notes.

“It is remarkable how many ATTORNEYS appear inappropriately on camera,” Baily continued. “We’ve seen many lawyers in casual shirts and blouses, with no concern for ill-grooming, in bedrooms with the master bed in the background, etc.

“One male lawyer appeared shirtless and one female attorney appeared still in bed, still under the covers. And putting on a beach cover-up won’t cover up you’re poolside in a bathing suit. So, please, if you don’t mind, let’s treat court hearings as court hearings, whether Zooming or not.”

Since courthouses in the Broward County judicial system shut down on March 16, the 17th Judicial Circuit has held about 1,200 Zoom meetings involving nearly 14,000 participants, WPLG-TV in Miami reported. The letter noted audio challenges that come with holding court hearings over Zoom, with Bailey stressing that more complicated “two-week expert-laden hotly contested” trials will likely be postponed until late summer or early fall.

“Be aware, Zoom hearings take more time than in-person hearings due to lag time in audio capacity coming online and people talking over each other,” the letter said. “Often, lawyers are not looking at their screens, but down at their files, their outlines and notes, or simply out the window, and cannot see the judge is hollering “Stop! Stop!” because an objection has been made and the audio stays with the witness rather than obeying the judge.”

Zoom will be used to handle civil cases in the county – but criminal trials have been placed on hold, given defendants have a constitutional right to present before a jury. Given some county inmates have tested positive for COVID-19, the criminal court system will remain out of function until further notice.

The jail population in Broward County has dropped below 3,000 for the first time in nearly three decades, according to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, as county officials continue to release inmates held on non-violent charges to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus within their facilities.

Across the county’s four facilities, the jail population fell to 3,049 by Sunday. Then it dropped to 2,989 by Monday, according to the Broward Sheriff’s Office. This comes after protesters with an advocacy group called Chainless Change drove by the facility last week to demand the release of non-violent offenders.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys have been working to come to agreements to reduce the jail population, having some inmates transferring to prisons and others released on house arrest. When an agreement cannot be reached, the cases are moved to an emergency docket. Broward Circuit Judge Andrew Siegel then decides whether an inmate should be released and under what terms.

Siegel has cleared the way for hundreds of inmates to be released under the same pretrial conditions as if they have posted bail, according to the Sun-Sentinel.

South Florida has been identified as the epicenter of the outbreak in the state. County officials had taken steps to begin social distancing by mid-March – a move that came around the same time Miami Mayor Francis Suarez tested positive for COVID-19. He has since recovered after spending more than two weeks in self-quarantine.

On March 30, Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, issued a “safe-at-home” order for four counties – Broward, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Monroe – in South Florida. After deferring to local governments for weeks, DeSantis issued a statewide stay-at-home order on April 1.