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Going back to court

David Adlerstein
The Apalachicola Times

After eight months of being limited to videoconferencing and telephone appearances, the courts are getting back in session this week, live and in person.

It’s going to be a little tricky, everyone is going to have to be patient, and do things a little differently than they were used to.

But Clerk of Courts Marcia Johnson, and County Judge Gordon Shuler are confident it should all go well.

County Judge Gordon Shuler and Clerk of Courts Marcia Johnson sit amidst the courthouse gallery that has been marked off for social distancing.

“As clerk, I know our court system has been moving slowly, and I think it’s time to go forward,” said Johnson. “There are people in jail and people with cases who have posted bonds, and there are also the victims of these cases.

“Their lives have been put on hold, and they need to have their day in court,” she said. “I’m glad to see us scheduling in-person court.”

Johnson’s staff remained open and available throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, and is continuing to do as such. “I want people to feel safe when they have to conduct business, and we are doing our part to make that happen,” she said.

What’s new this week is that Shuler, as well as Circuit Judge Jonathan Sjostrom will begin to hold in-person court, and there’s likely to be jury trials soon.

Shuler has sent word that those receiving a jury summons requesting them to appear at the courthouse can feel confident everything is being done to ensure their safety.

“During these times, jury participation is crucial for restoring court services and ensuring access to justice,” he said. “We want you to know that your courts, clerks, and lawyers are taking safe steps to protect your health and safety. Throughout Florida, we are implementing new protective measures, offering remote services when possible, increasing disinfecting protocols, and incorporating policies with your safety in mind.”

All people required to enter the main courthouse are required to undergo a simple health screening, and to wear a face mask at all times. Access to the courthouse will be denied to anyone with a temperature of 100.4 or above, or who answer yes to questions that include whether they have symptoms, excluding those due to a known medical reason, such as cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, chills, muscle pain, sore throat or new loss of taste or smell.

Questions also pertain to whether they are awaiting the results of a COVID-19 test, are under instructions to self-isolate or quarantine, or who have had close contact, such as 15 minutes or more within less than six feet, of someone with a COVID-19 diagnosis or awaiting test results.

Johnson and Shuler stressed that everyone is asked to maintain a six-foot distance from others, and seating has been marked accordingly. The main courtroom has been reduced from seating of 200 down to 24, with the only people allowed in the courtroom those essential to the proceedings, such as attorneys, parties, necessary witnesses, family members, victims and the media.

“Dockets are being purposely kept small,” said Shuler. “An extra cleaning person has been provided to clean before, during and after court proceedings.”

Tissues, bleach wipes and hand sanitizer are all available throughout the courtroom. “The court is mindful of the need for public and transparent proceedings,” said the judge.

Johnson said that Franklin County is in Phase 2 of Gov. DeSantis’ plan, and that allows limited in-person contact for certain purposes and/or requires use of protective measures. In Phase 3, in-person contact would be more broadly authorized and protective measures relaxed, and in Phase 4, COVID-19 would no longer present a significant risk to public health and safety.

Shuler said those who remain concerned about visiting the courthouse can request an excusal at www.franklinclerk.com by filling out a form. For questions, call Teresa Evans at 653-9505.

Reasons for excusal can include being someone at high risk of severe illness, someone who must care for someone whose regular care provider is closed or unavailable, someone who has recently returned to work after being unemployed due to COVID-19, or someone who has suffered a financial or personal loss due to the pandemic which would make it a hardship to perform jury service.