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Florida Judge Adjusts to Presiding Through Zoom Chats

The newest judge in Flagler County, Fla., Andrea Totten, has had to get used to something non-conventional: communicating with plaintiffs and defendants via Zoom from the bench in an empty courtroom.

the scale of justice
(TNS) — During normal business hours, the Kim C. Hammond Justice Center is bustling with activity. Anxious people line the halls, waiting to go before the judge or heading in to do business with the Clerk of Court.

These days, the halls of justice are almost too quiet, as judges like Flagler County’s newest county judge,  Andrea Totten , communicate with plaintiffs and defendants via Zoom from the bench in an empty courtroom.

Appointed to the Seventh Judicial Circuit a little over a year ago in 2019, the former Assistant Attorney General and Assistant State Attorney oversees the civil end of things – presiding over cases related to small claims, probate and adult guardianship and enjoying the opportunity to settle into the position.

“It’s vast – it takes a long time getting accustomed to being ‘the judge’ and being in that role,” said Totten. “When you’re the judge everyone thinks you have the answers to everything – whether it’s law related or not.”

A people person who enjoys the interaction of a live courtroom and a well-argued motion, she said the pandemic has been an adjustment for everyone, noting how quickly, under the guidance of Judge  Terence R. Perkins , the Flagler team adapted to technology and kept the wheels of justice turning.

“Even when I wasn’t having court – and I only had about a month where I really didn’t have any court, other than first appearances, which never stopped, we do those every day of the year – once we got our Zoom accounts, we immediately got back to work,” Totten said. “As a new judge in a pandemic, it’s been an ever-changing situation. I was never entirely stopped, particularly on my probate docket because most of the probate work happens through paperwork. In fact, the clerk’s office has reported that probate filings are up 30 percent in the last few months.”

Since her appointment Totten has spent countless hours studying case law and conferring with peers as she deepens her experience on the bench. For each case, she comes well-prepared.

“As far as the law goes, there’s an assumption that the minute you are appointed judge you now know everything about everything in all of juris prudence and of course that’s not literally the case,” she said. “I spend a ton of time researching and learning – this is true, I know judges who have been judges for years that say the body of law is so vast you never stop learning. My goal, and this has always been the case, is trying to be the most prepared person in the room.”

Following broad guidelines set by the Florida Supreme Court that include remote proceedings, judges work diligently to maintain the decorum of the courtroom and navigate in-person proceedings when necessary.

“One struggle you have when folks are appearing from their car, bedroom or standing outside a workplace, they don’t feel the same formality they would if they were standing in a courtroom with the judge right there, the weight of it,” she said. “Judge Distler and  Judge Perkins  oftentimes have mixed proceedings where they’ve got some people that are live in the courtroom and some more people who are on Zoom and kind of managing all of that at once.”

There’s even a pilot program allowing for Zoom Remote Trials for circuit civil cases.

“Thanks to the efforts of  Judge Perkins , Flagler County was chosen to participate in that,” said Totten. “He’s done one and I’ve heard it was pretty difficult. I can imagine, because when I do my small claims pretrials I’ll often have 50 or so people on Zoom on a meeting at once.”

In spite of the challenges, Totten is complimentary of the work being done to serve the community.

“I’m proud of what we’re continuing to get done in these unprecedented times and how we’ve kept up,” she said, “constantly adjusting and reassessing and doing whatever we can to move the ball forward and administer justice efficiently.”

(c)2021 The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Fla. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.