Last week Raul Zambrano, chief judge of the Seventh Judicial Circuit, cleared Flagler, Puntam, Volusia and St Johns counties to resume in-person jury trials, which had been suspended for much of the year, with a reprieve last summer and fall.
A release issued by the Seventh Judicial Circuit last week said in-person trials “may resume throughout the circuit effective March 15.” The announcement was duly reported, and the county was in fact “scheduled to resume in-person jury trials in March,” Circuit Judge Terence Perkins, the chief judge in Flagler, told FlaglerLive today.
As it turns out, the county courthouse will not see in-person trials until April 19.
“In response to improving health data for our county, way back in January the Court and our Clerk of Court began efforts to summons prospective jurors for trials commencing the weeks of March 15 and March 22,” Perkins said in an email. Zambrano’s clearance came through. “Accordingly, we finalized our jury trial dockets and returned to those health and safety precautions we used successfully in our summer and fall in-person jury trials. Unfortunately, the vendor used by our clerk (and other clerks around the state) did not send the jury summons to our prospective jurors in time to reasonably convene trials. We were informed of this issue just days before jury trials were to resume and, as a result, we were forced to cancel our in-person jury trials.”
For the last few days visitors to the courthouse and the clerk of court’s website have been informed that “Jury Service for all March dates have been cancelled. If you were summoned for reporting date in March, no action is needed and you can disregard your summons.”
Clerk of Court Tom Bexley in an interview late this afternoon too responsibility for the error, though it wasn’t actually the clerk’s mistake. “When a vendor fails, we fail. I hate t put it that way but it’s true,” Bexley said.
“I had a bunch scheduled and they all got passed in Circuit and County Court,” an attorney familiar with the issue texted, but not for attribution. “Judge Perkins was not pleased.” Perkins, a stickler for procedure, has been exasperated at various points by the backlogged docket, though he’s also been adamant about not jeopardizing jurors’ or others’ health just to get trials scheduled.
Until some six years ago, Bexley and then-Clerk of Court Gail Wadsworth’s operation would send out jury summonses by hand–literally printing them, folding them placing them in envelopes and mailing them out. That changed with the contracting of a vendor who carries out the task at the clerk’s behest. Weeks ago Perkins contacted the clerk and did what he usually does ahead of trail weeks–he ordered a set number of jury summonses to go out, based on the number of trials he expected.
The clerk’s office in turn sent the order to its vendor. “Sorry to say it but they dropped the ball,” Bexley said. “All they can tell me is that it was not done for whatever reason, there was a glitch in their system, they assured us it wouldn’t happen again.” But by then the legally-required time span when a juror may be summoned had passed. The clerk’s office had no choice but to cancel the summonses altogether. “We had no choice,” Bexley said. “It wasn’t something I took great satisfaction in doing.”
Bexley said procedures have been put in place so that “we won’t allow that vendor to fail again.”
“I am told that the issue with the vendor has been resolved and summons have already been issued for our 2 week in-person jury trial docket commencing the weeks of April 19 and 26,” the judge wrote today. Once trials do resume, the court, which has been working with the Flagler Health Department, will continue to follow public health recommendations, including health screening of all who enter the courthouse, social distancing in all public spaces, with face-mask requirements still in effect and certain limits on public attendance within courtrooms, though trials will be accessible via YouTube.
Hybrid hearings will also continue, with some proceedings taking place in the courtroom while parties may appear by Zoom.