Judge’s Corner

New Year, New Initiatives

By: Honorable Nushin G. Sayfie, Chief Judge
Email: nsayfie@jud11.flcourts.org 

“The New Normal” January 21, 2022

Whether we like it or not, whether we accept it or not, the pandemic was a game changer for the world and most certainly for our justice system. Without thinking too hard I think most of us can think of moments in the last 22 months that we have been battling COVID-19 we actually enjoyed. Maybe it was more time at home with family, maybe it was less traffic, maybe it was wearing sweatpants! But certainly, there was something that you found either personally or professionally positive, even if you could not admit it publicly.

But there was of course tremendous hardship and too much tragedy. Over 860,000 Americans lost their lives to COVID-19. Over 120,000 children orphaned. The education of American children has suffered unprecedented setbacks. We may have become numb to these statistics, but the devastation is astounding, and the possible long term consequences are daunting.

When you think back on where you were in February of 2020 it was a different world. We will forever think of our lives before and after the pandemic. And perhaps most fascinating – the pandemic is in every sense a global pandemic. Every single person on this earth is sharing this experience.

Where are we now? And where are we headed? These are the 2 pressing questions for the justice system that I think about daily as the Chief Judge of the 11th Judicial Circuit of FL, the 3rd largest jurisdiction in the country. How can we continue to deliver fair and efficient justice to our citizens in this changing landscape? How do we prepare and train the next generation of judges, lawyers and administrators to do our jobs when so much of the future may be virtual?

These are not questions that can be easily answered, certainly not today. As I write this the Omicron variant has just passed its peak and we have somehow managed to operate well through our 3rd wave and variant of this virus. In April 2022, Attorney Stuart Ratzan and other esteemed attorneys organized a COVID-19 Jury Trial Task Force. The committee is made up of lawyers and judges, but perhaps most crucially, 3 medical doctors, all infectious disease specialists. The task force has met every 2 weeks for almost 2 years. And don’t let the name fool you, we have tackled many issues related to our justice system, not just jury trials. With the guidance and support of the members we have been able to continue our operations through COVID without the detriment that other jurisdictions have faced. This collaboration has been a corona “silver-lining” and a benefit not just related to pandemic practices.

While “our” doctors are certain that Omicron is on the decline. The future of the pandemic is still uncertain. We are likely to face more waves and more variants until the virus is endemic, and akin to the common flu or cold. We must continue to find ways of living our full professional and personal lives with the virus as part of our context.

Irrespective of the virus though, we now have remote practices in place, and I think we all can see where those practices have increased efficiency in a town full of traffic and lacking in parking. We have been able to give easier access to our court system, and to justice, to many people who previously were excluded or who had to endure major hardship to have their day in court. Mental health and medical providers can reach people who were previously hampered by transportation and work schedules. An employee caring for a sick child at home can still work and be productive. There are many more examples, and this is a good thing, another corona “silver-lining”.

I confess, I am a “people” person. I miss people…I would like to be in a room full of people. But I have come to understand that the pandemic has, through necessity, catapulted us into a new world that we were headed for gradually and eventually. Our laws and our psyche have not yet caught up, but the new world is here. And we cannot go back.

2022 will be pivotal. We need to think creatively and positively of ways to embrace our new technology and practices without losing the crucial, personal elements that in-person contact affords. If it seems like I have just left you with no answers and a lot of questions then you are absolutely correct! It is my greatest honor to serve this community with the over 700 judges and staff of the 11th Judicial Circuit of FL, as well as with our justice partners and dedicated lawyers. I look forward to collaborating with all of you, to develop a new normal that we can all be proud of.