Saying he is acting “out of an abundance of caution,” Chief U.S. District Judge Mark Walker said he is postponing all of his civil trials until the coronavirus pandemic is under control and the number of new COVID-19 cases and deaths in Florida has dropped.
Walker’s order Monday came in a lawsuit involving the National Rifle Association. The gun-rights group is challenging a Florida law, passed in the aftermath of the 2018 mass shooting at a Parkland high school, that prevents people under age 21 from buying guns.
The NRA lawsuit was scheduled for a Jan. 11 trial in Tallahassee, but Walker’s Monday order indefinitely postponed that trial and all other civil trials over which he presides, “with the hope that an effective vaccine is on the horizon and new infection numbers will start to fall.”
The coronavirus has continued to spread throughout the state, where health officials on Monday reported 19,282 COVID-19-related deaths of Florida residents — a jump of 105 from a Sunday count. The state has recorded more than 1 million COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic early this year.
“Florida is closing in on 20,000 total deaths, with 642 reported deaths in the last seven days, and Leon County has reported 861 new infections in the last seven days, representing a 22 percent increase in cases,” Walker, a sharp-tongued jurist who has often clashed with lawyers representing the state, wrote in Monday’s order.
Throughout the pandemic, federal and state judges — including judges in the federal Northern District of Florida — have conducted hearings through telephone, Zoom or other online platforms.
For example, Northern District Judge Robert Hinkle held a virtual trial in a high-stakes lawsuit over a 2019 law aimed at implementing a constitutional amendment that restored voting rights to felons. Numerous lawyers and witnesses appeared online during the two-week trial, which began in late April, and members of the public were able to listen by phone.
Meanwhile, the Florida Supreme Court and the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals continue to hold arguments online.
Walker pointed out that, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 14.5 million people have tested positive for the coronavirus in the U.S. since the beginning of the year.
“Community spread and resulting deaths will persist” unless the public adopts “simple, but effective” precautions, such as social distancing, limiting large gatherings and wearing masks, the chief judge wrote.
“Reasonable minds can differ as to whether you can conduct a safe trial with these precautions in place. In my experience, it is getting harder to do so,” Walker wrote. “For my civil docket, I will continue all trials for a period of time until this pandemic is under control.”
Walker said he will address criminal trials separately, “particularly in cases where speedy trial is implicated.”
The judge ordered the clerk to reset a date for the NRA case “on an expedited basis once infection numbers are under control.”
In a footnote, Walker emphasized that Monday’s order applied only to his cases.
“This court is cancelling all civil trials for a period of time, with the hope that an effective vaccine is on the horizon and new infection numbers will start to fall. To be clear, this is a decision I am making for my cases on my civil docket only,” he wrote. “This is not a uniform, district-wide order, and in no way should be construed as a limitation on any other judge in the Northern District of Florida.”
Republished with permission from The News Service of Florida.