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2015-16 Annual Report

Message from Chief Justice Jorge Labarga

I have worked nearly four decades in Florida courts – as an assistant public defender, as a prosecutor, as a private litigator, as a trial judge, as a Supreme Court justice and, for the last three years, as Florida’s chief justice.

If I could share one thing – just one single thing – with people who don’t have much first-hand knowledge of Florida’s court system, it would be this:

Florida’s courts do good.

They do immense good in the lives of individual people who are hurt or in trouble. And they do immeasurable good simply by fulfilling the roles they play in our democracy and our society, dispensing justice, confirming the rule of law and providing an essential check and balance in our government. As citizens of our state and our great country, we all know this and I’m sure we all feel a deep gratitude for the amazing legacy we have received from the Founders and the generations that followed them.

But to function as they do, courts must have the trust and confidence of the people they serve. This foundation of public trust is strengthened as citizens gain more knowledge and understanding of their courts. As chief justice, it is my sincere hope that people will learn more about Florida’s courts by exploring this annual report on our state’s judiciary. Many dedicated employees – not just judges! – work in this branch of government to make it possible for citizens to have a place to seek justice.  

Don’t be hesitant. This report is written for a wide audience – Florida’s judges and court staff, certainly, but also all the people they serve. I’m confident that readers who peruse this report will come away with greater understanding of and greater trust in their courts. And I thank you, very sincerely, for the time and attention you give to this annual report.   

What will you find in the following pages? In this opening message, I will mention only a few highlights, topics that I believe will interest many people. I encourage you to browse through the entire report to discover the wide array of informative articles and graphics on court initiatives and programs in the fiscal year stretching from July 1, 2015, through June 30, 2016.

The first issue I want to draw to your attention: our efforts to bring down the barriers that confront too many people when they seek meaningful access to civil justice. As proud as I am of the good that courts do, I know that they can and must do more, much more – most particularly when it comes to civil justice. Legal aid initiatives and programs, as committed and hard-working as they are, have the capacity to meet only a fraction of the needs of poor people confronting important problems in their lives without the counsel of an attorney. But that’s only part of the problem! Even people with moderate incomes many times cannot afford an attorney.

That was why the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice was created in late 2014. The problem is a multi-faceted one that needs the concerted creativity of leaders from across our society, which is why the Access Commission includes people from all branches of Florida government as well as lawyers, legal aid experts and, importantly, the business community. I promise you, the members of the Access Commission are determined to bridge the gap that keeps some citizens from meaningful access to the justice intended for all. As its term was expiring in the summer of 2016, the Access Commission recommended that the Florida Supreme Court approve establishing a standing Access to Civil Justice Commission. And so the work goes on.

There’s a second group I want to point out: the Judicial Management Council. Don’t be deceived by the mild-sounding name! This is a seriously cool group of people. Made up of 16 judges, lawyers and other public leaders, the JMC is charged with keeping on top of developing trends and potential crises -- and with figuring out how the courts can cope with whatever challenges arise. The JMC produced two very important reports in late 2015, both of which were unanimously approved by the Florida Supreme Court:  

  1. “Justice: Fair and Accessible to All” is the long-range strategic plan the JMC drafted after much hard work, including listening to input at public forums around the state and reviewing the nearly 6,000 responses submitted by attorneys, witnesses, victims, defendants, jurors, court staff, court clerks, and members of the general public;
  2. “Delivering Our Message / Court Communication Plan for the Judicial Branch of Florida” is a comprehensive plan that acknowledges the need to keep abreast of the evolving world of communication tools. However, it also emphasizes the necessity of age-old principles essential to any healthy communication dynamic – building and maintaining relationships of trust and training for emergencies and other stressful and demanding events, such as high-profile trials and hearings.

As a quick aside, this annual report is itself an excellent example of the importance of both traditional and cutting-edge communication tools!

Just a few quick points before I close this opening message. In this annual report, you will find articles about “problem-solving courts” which certainly will convince you, if I have not, that courts do good. You will read about exciting developments in court technology and initiatives on court security. And you will find basic information about the structure of our court system, which consists of two levels of trial courts and two levels of appellate courts.

It has been my honor to serve as the head of Florida’s judiciary – and I am excited to continue in that role for a second two-year term as chief justice.

I want to finish by expressing my deep respect for and gratitude to the men and women who work in Florida’s courts – some inside the courtrooms but many more out of sight, in an office down the hall or on another floor. Together they helped Florida’s trial and appellate courts bring more than 3.7 million cases to a conclusion in the fiscal year that stretched from July 2015 through June 2016.

Many of these millions of cases were complex, difficult and painful – but every one of them was important to the people who brought them to court. We who work in Florida’s courts never lose sight of that.