Courtroom Coping in Times of COVID-19

A guest post by professional court reporter, Sharon Pell Velazco, RPR, FPR, CLR

While in court reporting school, I remember asking my instructor, Ms. Silverman, for suggestions on how to become a successful court reporter. Without hesitation, she, a former agency owner, replied, “never say no to a job.” So, that, and “get your pages out!” are her most memorable words of advice. My 25 years of court reporting have proven the wisdom behind her sage counsel. Keeping her insight in mind, I have enjoyed my career as a stenographer immensely. Because I have followed that tenet of “just say yes,” I have had many doors of opportunity open that might have otherwise remained closed, with me none the wiser as to what advantage or experience may be on the other side.

I had the most recent door of opportunity open unexpectedly when just about all other literal doors were closed (including my own) due to the worldwide COVID-19 crisis. I was asked by U.S. Legal Support if I would be interested in participating in a virtual jury trial pilot program, one of five in the state being promulgated by the Florida Supreme Court. I would have the chance to, from the comfort of my home office, report a trial where the selection and voir dire of the jury would be conducted using a remote platform. This meant that all the participants — the judge, court staff, attorneys, potential jurors and I, the court reporter –had the ability to appear for the proceedings via computers, iPads, and iPhones using Zoom technology. So, of course, following my “just say yes” philosophy and not knowing any other details, I eagerly said yes to the prospect and wondered what adventure was in store. Later, I was even more delighted when I found out the trial was being presided over by the Honorable Beatrice Butchko. Judge Butchko is widely respected by the south Florida legal community and is especially appreciated by court reporters in the 11th Judicial Circuit because she is record-conscious and runs a tight courtroom. Judge Butchko openly recognizes stenography as the gold standard for keeping the record and has let it be known that she finds the realtime record useful in making her rulings.

I looked forward to the experience with much anticipation, and was excited when the morning of the first day of jury selection finally arrived. I logged in to the Zoom room and saw the first panel of 30 prospective jurors,. Judge Butchko had kindly emailed the list of 120 potential jurors and their completed questionnaires the evening before. I was told the 120 jurors would be broken down into four panels of 30 each. But, as I stared down at my computer screen and noted the little squares that framed each of the jurors’ faces, it was such a relief to see the name of each juror clearly labeled under their individual box. That made it so much easier to immediately identify for the realtime transcript who was speaking, rather than having to rely, as in the PreCOVID-19 times, on a typewritten list of the potential jurors with their names and assigned numbers — aforesaid list being usually distributed five minutes before trial would begin — and then later having to match that list to the 30 anonymous faces, just using their juror number as a placeholder reference. Realizing the import of my newfound knowledge, I relaxed, settled into my comfortable home office chair, and began to write.

Judge Bailey sincerely welcomed the venire online, thanked them for their participation, and stressed the importance of access to the courts in our American system of justice. She then turned the proceedings over to Judge Butchko, who was very enthusiastic as she introduced her staff and court reporter (me!) and then gave the attorneys the chance to introduce themselves and their clients. The judge then resumed her remarks, earnestly explaining the necessity and significance of their jury service, and thanking them for agreeing to participate in this virtual operation. Throughout the whole process of the judges’ introductory remarks and online jury selection, I was ecstatic that all the speakers’ voices were clear and easily understood. There was just one instance when I had to ask someone to repeat their answer, and that was only because there was either a disruption in their connection and/or they weren’t close enough to the mic.

Judge Butchko, Mr. Baldwin, and Mr. Waas were thorough, and were obviously well prepared for this unprecedented process as they interviewed each prospective juror, taking copious notes and keeping track of the jurors’ responses which were intermittently accented with the background noise of a barking dog or babbling baby. There were also virtual breakout rooms set up where, with a few strokes on a computer keyboard, the judge, attorneys, and court reporter could be relocated by Yani, the virtual court administrator, to convene and discuss the jury selection process, as well as to meet with some of the prospective jurors individually, as needed. The virtual voir dire concluded, and the six jurors and two alternates were ultimately selected.

The next step was to resume the trial process in the actual courtroom in one of the newer courthouses in downtown Miami. I was cautioned to wear a mask, and was assured that the judges had met with epidemiology specialists and doctors in order to be in the best position possible to safeguard everyone’s health for the duration of the trial.

That morning, I happily pulled into my temporarily assigned FREE parking space in the courthouse garage. I was met by a masked, glove-wearing, uniformed security guard who directed me to the lobby. Upon entering the main section of the building, I was immediately met by another masked, uniformed security guard who escorted me over to have my temperature taken by a futuristic-looking machine that seemingly gauged my body heat just by focusing a beam of light on my forehead. Satisfied that I was below any alert level, the guard allowed me to proceed with my equipment to the x-ray scanner. I soon discovered this trial was the only action in the building. The elevators, which were usually congested on a preCOVID-19 day with about 20 people trying to cram into each car, now were limited to two occupants at a time, with the outline of two sets of footprints taped and spaced at opposite ends of the car — one set about six feet apart from the other.

I stepped off the quiet elevator and made my way to the courtroom at the opposite side of the wall. Walking across the large, empty expanse of space, as I approached the door, I again was caught up in the surreal silence of what used to be a bustling, overcrowded room, usually filled with attorneys and clients waiting their turn for their case to be called. However, as soon as I opened the door to the courtroom, I was not prepared for the level of activity contained within. Judges Soto, Bailey, and Butchko were busily organizing and directing IT and court staff, and supervising that all precautionary measures were in place. I noted that the jurors’ chairs were spaced six feet apart. I saw hand sanitizer and alcohol and alcohol wipes at every table and around the room. I was advised that even though I was wearing my N95 mask, if I had any intention of moving around the courtroom, I would need to don the protective face shield, as well. I tried it on and immediately felt like a sci-fi stormtrooper. However, when I noticed the plastic shield was fogging up and I couldn’t see my computer screen clearly, I decided that I would keep on my N95 mask, as required, but that I would remain in my seat in lieu of having to constantly wear the face shield. I rationalized that my chair was directly in front of the judge’s bench, and I would not be in close proximity to anyone.

Once the chief judges were satisfied that everything was in place and set according to plan, Judge Butchko took the bench and we all stood, respectfully, waiting for the jury to enter. Robert, the bailiff, guided them into the room and directed them to their seats and, once again, I was reminded of stormtroopers as they came in wearing those square, plastic, protective shields on top of their masks. Judge Butchko warmly greeted them, clearly excited, and again thanked them for their service and participating in this novel legal experiment.

The masked attorneys gave their opening statements, the masked witnesses took the stand and testified, and I, the masked, silent observer, wrote it all down. It was like a regular, ordinary trial in every other way if you didn’t notice the masks, hand sanitizer and alcohol wipes everywhere. Oh, and those protective face shields! Long story short, the trial came to a close with the jurors deliberating and giving an award to the counter-plaintiff. The verdict was presented to the clerk in a clear plastic envelope. Justice was served! When Judge Butchko was passing out the certificates to the jurors and acknowledging gratitude for their service, she exchanged elbow bumps instead of the traditional handshake. This gesture drew appreciative laughter from all in the courtroom. It may well become the trend as we conform to the new social norms of social distancing and limited body contact!

I must confess that I found writing realtime to be more challenging than usual due to the physical constraints of the masks; those worn by the speakers tended to muffle their speech at times, and the heat from my own mask was more distracting than a meddlesome gnat. To say my overall level of concentration was inhibited is an understatement! Judge Butcko graciously thanked me for the realtime feed I was able to provide.

In the foreseeable future, for as long as courtroom participants will be wearing masks, I would suggest it would be conducive for the court stenographer and realtime record to have a separate plexiglass booth available from which the mask-wearing speakers’ voices can be amplified . This would greatly assist in the production of an accurate, verbatim realtime record on which the judges may rely.

I am grateful for the role I was given to play in this momentous virtual jury trial pilot program, and I believe this endeavor will multiply and successfully enable the wheels of justice to continue turning in these uncertain times.

Lastly, wherever you are, Joanie Silverman, Court Reporting Instructor Extraordinaire, on behalf of future remote stenographers everywhere, I thank you for your encouragement to “just say yes”!

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