As courtrooms throughout the 2nd Judicial Circuit prepare a slow, staged process of reopening, the bench at the Apalachicola courthouse next week will have a new judge seated upon it.
On Wednesday, July 1, Circuit Judge Jonathan Sjostrom will replace the retiring Charles Dodson, and in doing so, will become the first chief judge in the circuit’s history to serve in that judgeship in Franklin County.
Dodson was slated to step down Jan. 4, 2021, but he and Sjostrom thought it best not to have his replacement step in in the middle of the term,. This way, Sjostrom (pronounced "Shur-strum") will begin his two-year assignment, which runs through June 30, 2022, in keeping with the standard summertime shifting of the circuit’s judges.
Grant Slayden, trial court administrator for the 2nd Judicial Circuit, said the judge, who at one time sat on the bench in Gadsden County, is looking forward to his new assignment.
"I think it is very helpful," said Slayden. "The chief judge will have an opportunity to be more aware of issues in smaller, more rural counties."
The filling of Dodson’s seat still leaves three judicial vacancies in the circuit, which include two Leon County judgeships and one circuit court seat.
Leon County Judge J. Layne Smith was named by Gov. Ron DeSantis to replace Circuit Judge James Hankinson, who retired, and Leon County Judge Anthony Miller was named by the governor to succeed Circuit Judge Martin Fitzpatrick, who was appointed as a U.S. Magistrate Judge for the Northern District of Florida.
The third vacancy was created when the governor appointed Circuit Judge Robert Long Jr. to replace retiring Judge James Wolf on the 1st District Court of Appeals.
The Judicial Nominating Commission is now at work drawing up a list of three to six names to forward to DeSantis for consideration for filling the vacant seats.
Slayden said that while a series of Phase 2 rules for the circuit’s courtrooms is in the process of being implemented, citizens in the county should expect few, if any, in-person hearings before either Sjostrom, or County Judge Gordon Shuler, in the immediate future.
"There is nothing scheduled to be conducted in-person," he said. "We’re easing into it very slowly."
He said Sjostrom will initially look to see if there are any changes of pleas in felony, or serious misdemeanor, cases, all of which require they be conducted in-person.
"Your Franklin County Court is currently conducting almost all regularly scheduled hearings through telephone or videoconferencing," Slayden said. "These technologies have successfully enabled the public to have access to their court system for most cases.
"However, some types of cases may only be conducted in person because of requirements in state law or court rule. We need to resolve these cases too," he said. "In these cases, the court established precautions to try to keep us all healthy when we must be together in court."
He said the rules require all persons who are entering the courthouse to attend court undergo a simple health screening and wear a face mask at all times, as mandated by the Florida Supreme Court.
"There are no exceptions," Slayden said. "Anyone without a face mask will be provided with one at no cost. Of course, the face mask must cover your nose and mouth."
He said the screening includes an external temperature scan and some questions regarding COVID-19 illness exposure and symptoms. People with a fever of at least 100.4 degrees who answer "Yes" to the screening questions will not be allowed to enter the courthouse to attend court. Cases will be continued with no penalty for these persons.
Slayden said cases will also be continued with no penalty for persons with underlying health issues or who are elderly. "The court wants to keep you and your family safe. We can hear your case at a later date," he said.
Other safety considerations in place including asking everyone to maintain a six-foot distance from others. "Seating in the courtroom has been marked to keep people six feet apart. While this will limit the capacity, it is necessary to comply with guidelines," Slayden said.
"Hand sanitizer will be available in the courtroom, he said. The only people allowed in the courtroom will be those essential to the proceedings, which includes attorneys, parties, necessary witnesses, and the media.
"Dockets are being purposely kept small," he said. "All of these measures help reduce the risk to everyone. If you must come to court, please rest assured that many steps have been taken to make your experience as safe as possible. As public servants, that is how we serve you best."