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Florida Supreme Court Conducts Historic Oral Arguments Using Video Screens

he Florida Supreme Court will consider arguments this week in a case that considers whether the identities of officers who kill civilians should be protected under the state’s new Marsy’s Law.
he Florida Supreme Court will consider arguments this week in a case that considers whether the identities of officers who kill civilians should be protected under the state’s new Marsy’s Law.

Breaking 175 years of tradition, the Florida Supreme Court on Wednesday did not meet in person for its oral arguments. This time, it used video conferencing and courtroom virtual backgrounds.

The experiment was largely successful, with a few minor glitches: long pauses between speakers, a pop-up on the screen displaying ‘unstable internet connection’ and times when the video was glitchy and broke up.

Courtroom decorum was enforced, meaning business attire for the lawyers and black robes for the justices, who were captured on video from the waist up. Justices used digital backgrounds to appear as though they were in the courtroom.

“We tried to minimize the chance that the technology would fail us,” Chief Justice Charles Canady said. Judges and attorneys had performed trial runs in the days leading to Wednesday’s historic virtual court.

The pandemic had effectively crippled America's legal system for weeks, shutting down courthouses and civil and criminal trials across the nation. Earlier this week, the U.S. Supreme Court conducted its first oral arguments via telephone, for the first time in its 230-year history. Blocks away on Wednesday, a major voting rights trial at the federal courthouse in Tallahassee was also wrapping up – its participants using video conferencing with only the judge in court.

Courtrooms across Florida continue to remain mostly dark. Canady, Florida’s chief justice, issued an emergency order earlier this week suspending jury trials and in-person preliminary hearings for first degree murder trials until July 2.

The Supreme Court will take the lessons learned Wednesday’s session and adapt as needed as it moves further into the public health crisis, court spokesman Craig Waters said. Canady appointed a work group to identify temporary and permanent changes that may need to happen during the pandemic.

“This is the best way to go even if some inevitable glitches happen as we all adapt to the technology and the conditions imposed by coronavirus,” Waters said.

The last in-person argument was March 4. The court heard four cases Wednesday, two of which focused on medical marijuana.

In a case involving a proposed citizens’ initiative on the adult use of marijuana, the court considered whether the proposal met the legal requirements of containing only a single subject and having a fair ballot summary.

The proposed amendment would decriminalize possession of up to two-and-a-half ounces of marijuana for personal use for those 21 and older. The primary argument in the case was that the ballot summary was misleading and was not clear enough for general voters.

“Voters should be told the truth,” said Amit Agarwal, who represented the state Attorney General, referring to the ballot statement being misleading because it does not clarify that possessing and purchasing marijuana would still be illegal federally. “We know there is a whole lot of potential for confusion.”

Sponsor representative George Levesque said that the amendment is broadly aiming to make marijuana, in some form or fashion, available to adults with restrictions that protect children. He said that they “piggyback” on the existing marijuana structure but do not describe the limitations that the policy might be engaging.

“What we try to do is make it clear that Florida is no longer going to criminalize the adult possession of marijuana that is consistent with the amendment,” Levesque said.

The court also considered a case of the state health department against Florigrown, which had challenged the constitutionality of a law governing medical marijuana. The case also concerned a constitutional amendment that required the health department regulate its safe use.

The Florida Department of Health was ordered to grant a medical marijuana treatment center to Florigrown, a newly formed company run by people who are not botanists, pharmacists or physicians who have any practice in the medical field, according to the petitioner’s initial brief filed in December.

Florigrown wrote in its initial brief in January that all it wanted was for the health department and Legislature to do what was mandated in the amendments. In the brief, the state argued that lawmakers withheld funding from the health department to enact the medical marijuana regulations, which forced the health department to hand-pick the businesses and did not give Florigrown a fair opportunity.
This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at stephanymatat@ufl.edu