Four candidates spoke in a virtual forum hosted by the Tiger Bay Club on July 9.
Four candidates for 7th Judicial Circuit judge positions — Bryan Robert Rendzio, Dan Hilbert, MaryEllen Osterndorf and Mike Orfinger — addressed residents in a virtual forum hosted by the Tiger Bay Club July 9.
A few other candidates who had signed up for the forum were not able to participate.
Responding to a question about strategies for dealing with the backlog of cases caused by COVID-19 shutdowns, all four candidates who were able to participate spoke about the importance of technology.
Rendzio said he is currently in a 14-day quarantine himself due to potential exposure, but has been maintaining his docket over Zoom.
"It’s very effective," he said. "It has done a great job of keeping up and adapting to the unfortunate circumstances that have occurred. ... We’re moving full steam ahead and we’re doing everything that we can to make sure that everyone has equal access to the court."
Osterndorf said the 7th Circuit is doing what it can with the orders coming from the Florida Supreme Court and from health agencies, using video and telephonic hearings.
"One of the most important things to remember is we have litigants that are represented by counsel and those litigants that are represented by themselves," she said. "And those self-represented litigants don’t always have the same resources that law firms have. So you have to ensure that there's equal access to all of those individuals. I think we’ve been very creative. I would continue with that creativity."
Orfinger said his civil division has adapted quickly, using Zoom for everything but jury trials, and is starting a trial project next month to use Zoom for jury trials, too.
In the mental health division where he presides over Marchman Act hearings on substance abuse, Orfinger said, non-jury trials, evidentiary hearings and other hearings are being held by Zoom or telephone.
"Those hearings have gone on without interruption," he said. "The difficulty has been getting people admitted to treatment. ... But as far as the court is concerned, we will be dealing with getting jury trials back on track. I haven’t had a jury docket since March, and I won’t have one in August. ... So we will have a lot of case management to do to stay on track."
Hilbert, an attorney, said that dockets had been crowded even before COVID-19, which has exacerbated the problem.
"To move forward ... we need judges who have two things: They have a strong work ethic, and they’re innovators," he said. "I’ve handled dockets with thousands of cases on them before, and I like to work. ... As it relates to innovation, technology really is the key. ... I have tried to be ahead of that curve a lot in my practice."
Asked about life experiences that do or could impact them as judge, all four candidates spoke about community service.
"My folks instilled in us that we were privileged to be where we were, and the responsibility of that privilege was to give back to the community," Osterndorf said. She added that she works with a high school youth group, and that making a difference in young people's lives has also affected her life. "I recognize the smallest thing that we do can impact someone, so treating the with civility and respect, and hearing them and communicating to them that you have heard the, makes a huge difference."
Renzdio noted his involvement with the West Volusia NAACP Youth Council. "I think it’s important for me, as a delinquency judge, to be involved with the community and be involved with the whole community, and get everyone’s input," he said.
Orfinger spoke of community, but also the importance of family: Two weeks ago, he said, he'd presided over his son's wedding.
"I can’t begin to tell you how helping to perpetuate my family impacted me," he said. "It was a wonderful feeling; it was one that I hope more people could experience. I know we experience it as parents, but it was extra special to experience as a judge."
Hilbert said that his mother, a retired nurse who'd served as a county commissioner, instilled in him a sense of community pride and of the value of community involvement.
He's president of his local Rotary Club, serves on the St. Augustine Police Department Retirement Board, was formerly the president of the St. Johns County Sports Club, and is also a pro bono lawyer for St Johns County and the Putnam County Veterans Court, representing veterans for free to aid them through the court process, he said. "I have to thank my mother for instilling in me this sense of community involvement, community pride and that work ethic," he said. "My goal is to take that to the bench as well."
CORRECTION: This story has been corrected to reflect that Dan Hilbert is currently an attorney.