2015-16 Annual Report
Issue 1: Deliver Justice Effectively, Efficiently, and Fairly
In this age of increasingly complex workloads and limited resources, Florida’s judicial branch is acutely aware of the need to govern itself effectively, efficiently, accountably, and fairly—goals that rely, to a great extent, on having revenues adequate to support its legislatively-authorized budget. Thus, to achieve these goals, in addition to working resolutely to ensure that the judiciary has sufficient and stable funding, courts system leaders are steadfast in their efforts to strengthen the governance and policy development structures of the branch.
- State Courts System Funding
- Judicial Management Council
- Performance and Accountability
- Fairness and Diversity Awareness
Judges and court staff are committed to using resources as carefully as possible, always looking for innovative ways to achieve greater efficiency and enhanced performance through technology and other time- and cost-saving measures. Even so, the need for sufficient and stable funding of Florida’s courts is abiding.
When court funding is not adequate, not only are judges, staff, and courtrooms affected—but so are the individuals, families, and businesses that depend on the courts to resolve disputes and achieve justice. For a lack of sufficient and stable funding for staff, buildings, technology, and other resources can lead to delays in the processing of cases that are important to the lives of individuals and to the livelihoods of businesses; also affected are the state’s aging courthouses, which often have safety or security issues that can put people in harm’s way; a dearth of adequate resources can also jeopardize opportunities to modernize and enhance court operations, which maximize the taxpayers’ investment in their justice system.
Suitable and dependable funding ensures that court users can have their needs met, expediently and safely, when they come through the courthouse doors, as hundreds of thousands do each year. Therefore, branch leaders encourage the state to invest in the people, places, and tools that are necessary to operate the courts system effectively and efficiently for the benefit of those the judiciary serves.
Historically, Florida’s courts have received less than 1 percent of the state’s total budget each year. For more information about the history of state courts system funding, please see the Short History of Florida State Courts System Processes, Programs, and Initiatives (Page 4 - PDF version).
Since the 2013 – 14 fiscal year, when Florida enjoyed its first budget surplus in six years, lawmakers have been working with a surplus. In FY 2015 – 16, from its $78.3 billion budget, lawmakers appropriated $516.3 million to the judicial branch, representing an increase of 3 percent over the previous year’s budget. [Note: this figure included $13.9 million for pass through/legislative project funding, i.e., worthy projects, but unrelated to the courts’ core mission and not requested by the courts; $17.4 million in nonrecurring funds for building needs; and $6.2 million for legislatively-approved supplemental appropriations related to FY 2014 – 15 increased costs in employee-related benefits and expenses.]
The 2015 – 16 judicial branch budget included $2 million for additional case managers; $750,000 for court interpreters; funding for additional senior judge days; and funding for the statewide replacement of hardware for the courts system’s network infrastructure. Funding was also provided to address facilities issues for the Third and Fifth DCAs and to advance to the next phase of construction for a new Fourth DCA building.
However, the branch’s top budget priority—recurring funds to address recruitment, retention, and equity issues affecting court personnel and to make judicial salaries more competitive— was not funded. Also not funded was the branch’s request for $25.6 million as part of a comprehensive plan to address technology needs of the trial courts related to case processing, due process, and achieving a minimum level of technology services statewide.
In FY 2016 – 17, from its $82.2 billion budget, lawmakers appropriated $521.7 million to the judicial branch. [Note: this figure includes $20.4 million for pass through/legislative project funding, i.e., worthy projects, but unrelated to the courts’ core mission and not requested by the courts; $19.2 million in nonrecurring funds; and $2.8 million for legislatively-approved supplemental appropriations related to FY 2016 – 17 increased costs in employee-related benefits and expenses.]
Over the last three years or so, the branch has faced challenges being in the same allocation of appropriations monies as agencies with high-profile exigencies (e.g., the Department of Corrections faces inmate safety issues and also has unmet maintenance and repair needs that have created security risks; and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement is endeavoring to work through a significant backlog of sexual assault kits and also needs additional investigators to examine use of force incidents by law enforcement officers and suspicious Department of Corrections prison deaths). Ultimately, lawmakers must decide what they consider the most pressing needs for allocation of limited funds.
That said, the legislature did not fund the judicial branch’s top budget priority: a pay issue for court staff and judges (specifically, the branch requested recurring funds for the second phase of a strategy to address recruitment, retention, and equity issues affecting court employees; the branch had also requested a positive salary increase for judges as part of a multi-year strategy to restore judicial salaries to a competitive level).
But the branch as a whole did have a number of successes in the 2016 session related to infrastructure projects for some of the DCAs, such as critical and significant funding to complete the renovation project at the Third DCA and the construction of a new courthouse for the Fourth DCA. Furthermore, branch leaders received positive feedback on information supporting trial court requests, including the trial court technology strategic plan. (For more information about the technology plan, please see the Short History, (Page 52 - PDF version).
Also included in the budget was funding for several pass through/legislative projects (i.e., worthy projects, but unrelated to the courts’ core mission and not requested by the courts). For example, funding was included in the FY 2016 – 17 trial court budget for issues such as funding for children’s advocacy centers and treatment funding for substance abuse. In addition, the legislature provided funding for establishing or expanding problem-solving courts (drug court, veterans treatment court, and mental health court).
But in the end, the trial courts sustained a total reduction of $2.7 million, in part due to “historical reversions” (i.e., the branch, to ensure no breaks in trial court operations, tends to budget conservatively; thus, it typically does not spend all the funds it is allocated by the legislature. In this case, lawmakers reduced the branch’s general revenue authority as a result). Costs, particularly in the areas of expert witnesses and court interpreting, are rising. The Trial Court Budget Commission is implementing practices to enhance monitoring of spending so that resources can be deployed to meet the greatest needs and to maximize resources throughout the year.
Note: State economists forecast a small revenue surplus in the 2017 – 18 FY but anticipate a budget deficit for the 2018 – 19 and the 2019 – 20 fiscal years.
For more than six decades, the judicial branch has benefitted from the guidance of its judicial management councils (JMCs), which are described as high-level management consultants to the supreme court. Established in November 2012, the current JMC—which is the branch’s fifth—was conceived as a “forward-looking advisory body to deftly assist the chief justice and the supreme court in proactively identifying trends, potential crisis situations, and means to address them.” The council’s first chair, then Chief Justice Ricky Polston, referred to the JMC as the “headlights of the branch, shining a high beam toward the future.” The council’s current chair, Chief Justice Jorge Labarga, calls the JMC “the workhorse of the judicial branch.” For more information about the branch’s management councils, please see the Short History of Florida State Courts System Processes, Programs, and Initiatives (Page 5 - PDF version).
The current JMC was designed to function as a nimble body that has the ability to respond quickly and vigorously to challenges facing the branch. This dexterity is achieved through the creation of workgroups that are charged with specific tasks and are sunsetted when their tasks are complete. Initially, the council chair established three workgroups: Access to Justice; Performance; and Education and Outreach. The following year, he created the Long-Range Strategic Planning Workgroup.
The Access to Justice Workgroup continues to focus on the development and implementation of interactive, web-based “interviews” to facilitate self-represented litigants’ access to the courts. The software that has been developed for this initiative, called the Do It Yourself (DIY) Florida Project, operates much like tax preparation software: after guiding users through a series of questions, it generates the appropriate court document that is ready to be reviewed, edited if necessary, and filed through the e-portal. Thus far, the workgroup has focused on developing interviews for small claims cases, landlord-tenant (evictions) cases, and some simple dissolution matters in the family law area. After the workgroup completes its review of these interviews, the project will go into the test phase.
Meanwhile, the Performance Workgroup, the Education and Outreach Workgroup, and the Long-Range Strategic Planning Workgroup fulfilled their directives:
- The Performance Workgroup reviewed filing and disposition trends by case type and level of
work and made recommendations to the court about how to meet future branch needs for uniform and consistent data reporting
and analysis in some crucial performance areas;
- The Education and Outreach Workgroup updated the branch-wide communication plan; the plan
was approved by the court, and implementation began in January 2016.
(This link goes to Delivering Our Message: Court Communication Plan for the Judicial Branch of Florida.)
For more information about the communication plan and its implementation process, please see the
Short History of Florida State Courts System Processes, Programs, and Initiatives (Page 32 - PDF version);
- And the Long-Range Strategic Planning Workgroup revised the branch’s long-range plan; the plan received the court’s approval in late 2015, and in January 2016, steps began to implement it. (Take this link to The Long-Range Strategic Plan for the Florida Judicial Branch 2016 – 2021.) For more information about the long-range plan and its antecedents, please see the Short History of Florida State Courts System Processes, Programs, and Initiatives (Page 9 - PDF version).
As three of the JMC’s first four projects were nearing completion, council members, who met to consider succeeding areas of focus, expressed universal concern about trial court security, and they recommended that this be one of the next priorities for the council. In large part, this recommendation came in response to one of the goals of the 2016 – 2021 long-range plan, which stresses the need to “Protect all judges, court personnel, court users, and facilities through effective security, emergency preparedness, and continuity of operations plans.” But their recommendation was also a reaction to the increasing incidences of mass violence across the globe. Indeed, as Chief Justice Labarga reported in his June 2016 State of the Judiciary Address, in the last 34 years, 81 mass shootings occurred in this country, 44 of which have taken place in the last decade; at the same time, the US has seen a rise in anti-government violence, including a dramatic increase in security threats and violent incidents in court buildings. To address the safety of the public, judicial officers, and court personnel, Chief Justice Labarga created the Trial Court Security Workgroup in August 2016; he appointed Judge Margaret Steinbeck, Twentieth Circuit, to chair it.
Among its charges, the workgroup will evaluate security procedures, practices, and perceptions at Florida’s courthouses; review national courthouse security procedures and consult with professionals and experts on model practices; identify important elements of security in trial court facilities; develop standards, model procedures, and recommendations for appropriate training; establish criteria for a statewide reporting system for security incidents; and identify effective partnerships and opportunities for partnerships in providing and promoting security in courthouses. To advance these goals, the chief justice plans direct outreach to county governments, including personal visits to local county commissioners and sheriffs wherever needed. (Note: the appellate courts already had a task force to address their security issues; in September 2015, the supreme court created the Task Force on Appellate Court Safety and Security to develop standards of operation and best practices relating to the safety and security of the supreme court and the DCAs.)
Then in October 2016, also in response to an issue the branch is newly encountering, the chief justice created the Guardianship Workgroup under the JMC. In the last two years, the Florida legislature passed laws to increase the state’s regulation and oversight of guardians and enacted measures designed to curb abuses. Thus when the chief justice established the workgroup, he emphasized that “This is an appropriate time to re-evaluate our system and determine if the courts are doing everything possible to meet the needs of everyone involved. Toward this end, the Guardianship Workgroup will examine judicial procedures and best practices pertaining to guardianship to ensure that courts are best protecting the person, property, and rights of people who have been judged to be incapacitated and people who may have diminished capacity to function independently. And it will also study guardianships in the court system with the goal of improving accountability to better protect these vulnerable people. To chair the workgroup, the chief justice appointed Judge Olin Shinholser (retired), who served on the bench of the Tenth Circuit for 26 years.
Among its responsibilities, the workgroup will consider the use of least restrictive alternatives that address specific functional limitations; determinations of incapacity; restoration of capacity; the assessment and assignment of costs associated with guardianship administration; post adjudicatory proceedings and responsibilities related to guardianship, including the rights guaranteed by Florida law; and training opportunities available to judges and court staff. The workgroup will provide the supreme court with a report evaluating guardianship practices and recommending ways to enhance the guardianship process (an interim report is due by October 2017, and a final report is due by September 2018).
In the late 1990s, the branch’s Judicial Management Council established the Committee on District Court of Appeal Performance and Accountability and the Committee on Trial Court Performance and Accountability to enhance the performance of Florida’s courts and ensure that they use public resources efficiently and in a way that the public can understand. In response to the increasing workload demands on these committees, the supreme court divided them from the Judicial Management Council in 2002, establishing each as a discrete commission.
The Commission on DCA Performance and Accountability (DCAP&A), currently chaired by Judge Vance Salter, Third DCA, and the Commission on Trial Court Performance and Accountability (TCP&A), currently chaired by Judge Diana Moreland, Twelfth Circuit, propose policies and procedures on matters related to the capable and effective functioning of Florida’s courts through developing comprehensive resource management, performance measurement, and accountability programs. The work of these commissions undergirds several of the goals identified in the long-range plan. In particular, these bodies support branch efforts to “utilize caseload and other workload information to manage resources and promote accountability” (goal 1.3); “ensure the fair and timely resolution of all cases through effective case management” (goal 1.2); and “encourage the use of consistent practices, procedures, and forms statewide” (goal 1.5). Below are the major initiatives in which these commissions, often in collaboration with other commissions or committees, are involved.
Since 2011, the DCAP&A has been responsible for monitoring performance measures for dependency and termination of parental rights appeals cases with the goal of improving the timeliness of the dispositions and thereby minimizing the harm to children affected by these sensitive family proceedings. The supreme court established the performance monitoring process, adopting eight timeframes pertinent to these cases (the eight timeframes are Final Judgement to Disposition; Notice of Appeal to Disposition; Notice of Appeal to Record; Record to Initial Brief; Initial Brief to Answer Brief; Answer Brief to Reply Brief; Answer Brief to Conference/Oral Argument; and Conference/Oral Argument to Disposition).
Over several years of monitoring, the district courts have consistently met four of the eight timeframes as well as the overall goal of 165 days from Notice of Appeal to Disposition. However, in four of the timeframes, the commission also identified areas in need of improvement; all four pertain to the receipt of documents (i.e., Notice of Appeal to Record; Record to Initial Brief; Initial Brief to Answer Brief; and Answer Brief to Reply Brief). While improvements have been made in meeting these timeframes, the commission noted challenges with meeting performance goals.
To address this concern, in fall 2014, the supreme court directed the DCAP&A and the TCP&A to establish a joint workgroup to determine the issues and processes that might advance the receipt of these documents and thus alleviate the delays; the workgroup was chaired by Judge Kathleen Kroll, Fifteenth Circuit. After examining the data, reviewing responses to a court reporting manager survey it drafted, identifying the challenges that need to be addressed, and reaching out to the various stakeholders (e.g., court reporting managers, district court clerks, trial court clerks), the workgroup prepared a report, Recommendations for Dependency and Termination of Parental Rights Appeals, which offers suggestions for reducing the delays in document receipt.
In its report, the workgroup observes that several rules and court procedures have already been developed to address these delays—but that they may be overlooked in practice. Thus in its recommendations, the workgroup reiterates these rules and procedures and encourages conformity. Other recommendations emphasize the need to provide notice in advance of these appeals. The two commissions believe that through concerted effort, these timeframes can be improved: indeed, simple efforts on the part of all the stakeholders—including judges, clerks, court reporters, trial court administration, and appellate counsel—have the ability to significantly diminish the delays in these cases. In a February 2017 administrative order, the supreme court approved the report and adopted its recommendations. (Follow this link to read the administrative order.)
While the DCAs have been state-funded for many years, the trial courts have not. Prior to the 2004 implementation of Revision 7 (more precisely, section 14 to Article V of the Florida Constitution), the trial courts were primarily county-funded, which caused disparities in the level of court services provided across the state. Revision 7 sought to alleviate these disparities, ensuring equitable distribution of resources to each circuit through the use of state funds. Since the successful implementation of Revision 7, the TCP&A has largely focused its efforts on establishing new, state-level performance and accountability policies for the trial courts, with an end result of better, more uniform services across all circuits.
Among the TCP&A’s many projects are four major technology initiatives: the Integrated Trial Court Adjudicatory System, the Trial Court Performance Management Framework, the Uniform Case Reporting Project, and Shared Remote Interpreting. Readers interested in learning about these projects can read about them in the Court Technology section of this annual report.
Due process signifies the administration of justice in accordance with established rules and principles, laid down to ensure that all people receive equal treatment under the law. In Florida’s courts system, due process elements refers to the resources that directly protect the fundamental constitutional and legal rights of court litigants. Those resources are court reporting (the process that creates and preserves a record of words spoken in court, and when necessary, provides their timely and accurate transcription in the event that an appeal is filed); court interpreting (court interpreting eliminates barriers in the court system for litigants with disabilities or limited ability to communicate in English); and expert witnesses (expert witnesses provide independent expert opinions concerning scientific or technical matters in dispute, or the physical, psychological or mental condition of persons in court matters involving fundamental rights).
In spring 2015, the Trial Court Budget Commission (TCBC), which oversees the preparation and implementation of the trial court component of the judicial branch budget, identified some concerning trends relating to the due process budgets of the trial courts: in particular, some circuits were experiencing increased expenditures. Commission members determined that a thorough study of the provision of due process services was needed in order to better position the TCBC to make decisions on due process legislative budget requests, the allocation of funds among the circuits, and management of the statewide reserve. Because the provision of these services involves policy as well as fiscal considerations, and because the TCP&A has worked extensively to develop best practices and standards for due process services, the TCBC chair at the time, Chief Judge Mark Mahon, Fourth Circuit, invited the TCP&A to participate in a joint workgroup to identify factors affecting the cost of providing due process services and to develop fiscal and operational recommendations for the provision of these services.
Established in June 2015 and chaired jointly by a TCBC member, Judge John Stargel, Tenth Circuit, and the TCP&A chair, Judge Moreland, the Due Process Workgroup was directed to address expert witnesses, court interpreting, and court reporting—and was asked to focus on expert witness issues first.
The workgroup’s report, Expert Witnesses in Florida’s Trial Courts, presents fiscal, operational, policy, and statutory recommendations. The supreme court approved the report in February 2017, including recommendations that require circuits to adopt written policies to govern the appointment and payment of expert witnesses; select experts from a registry maintained by the circuit; establish a statewide rate structure for certain types of evaluations; appoint one expert initially in standard adult competency proceedings; and implement an educational component for judges and court staff. (This link goes to the administrative order adopting the workgroup’s recommendations.) The Due Process Workgroup has now turned its attention to court interpreting and aims to issue recommendations regarding this due process element later this year.
Since 1999, the court has relied on the weighted caseload method to determine the need for judges in each circuit and county court during the annual judicial certification process. (This link goes to information about that process.) For the 1999 workload assessment, OSCA, with the help of the National Center for State Courts, measured judicial workload using a time study, for which nearly 120 judges tracked their time spent on different types of cases.
Case weights need to be reassessed periodically, however: new legislative mandates, changes in court rules, new court initiatives, advances in technology, evolving case precedent, growing case complexity, and the availability (or dearth) of supporting resources all can influence case weights, so the weights must be reassessed regularly to ensure their validity. In 2006 – 07, the case weights were revisited, though a time study was not performed for that update.
In order to re-align case weights with current actualities, in 2014 – 15, the TCP&A initiated efforts to update the case weights used to evaluate judicial workload in the county and circuit courts. Performed under the leadership of the Judicial Needs Assessment Committee, chaired by Judge Paul Alessandroni, Charlotte County, and staffed by OSCA and the National Center for State Courts, the workload assessment was conducted in two phases. First was a new time study for which participation was sought from all circuit and county judges as well as from all senior judges and quasi-judicial officers (magistrates, child support hearing officers, and civil traffic infraction hearing officers). This time study recorded all case-related and non-case-related work over a four-week period, tracking the time, broken down into small increments, spent on 27 case types. Altogether, 97 percent of circuit and county judges and 96 percent of quasi-judicial officers participated in the time study, which has provided an empirical description of the amount of time judges and judicial officers currently devote to processing each case type, as well as the division of the workday between case-related and non-case-related activities.
The second phase was a quality adjustment process to ensure that the final weighted caseload models incorporate sufficient time for efficient and effective case processing. This process included a statewide sufficiency of time survey, site visits to circuit and county courts in eight circuits, and a structured quality review of the case weights by groups of experienced judges from across the state.
The Florida Judicial Workload Assessment: Final Report, drafted by National Center for State Courts staff, makes six recommendations, which the supreme court adopted. Currently, implementation options are being evaluated for three of them: the legislature should consider creating new judgeships in the circuit and county courts where the weighted caseload model shows a need for additional judicial resources; given the impact of support personnel, OSCA should conduct workload assessments for trial court law clerks and staff attorneys; and, given the important contribution made by quasi-judicial officers, OSCA should conduct a comprehensive investigation into the various roles and uses of quasi-judicial officers across the state. (This link goes to the final report.)
In the judicial branch’s long-range plan, the very first goal articulated is to “Perform judicial duties and administer justice without bias or prejudice.” This commitment to fairness is also expressed in the branch’s vision statement, which clarifies that, “To be fair, the Florida justice system will respect the dignity of every person, regardless of race, class, gender or other characteristic, apply the law appropriately to the circumstances of individual cases, and include judges and court staff who reflect the community’s diversity.” With the help of several supreme court-appointed committees over the last 30 years, the judicial branch has striven to realize these objectives, working heedfully to establish court settings that are free of preconceptions and to create environments in which judges, court personnel, attorneys, and litigants treat each other with courtesy, dignity, and consideration. For information about the history of fairness and diversity initiatives in Florida’s courts system, please see the Short History of Florida State Courts System Processes, Programs, and Initiatives (Page 14 - PDF version).
The body currently spearheading the court system’s fairness initiatives is the Standing Committee on Fairness and Diversity, which was established in 2004 to “advance the State Courts System’s efforts to eliminate from court operations bias that is based on race, gender, ethnicity, age, disability, financial status, or any characteristic that is without legal relevance.” Chaired by Judge Scott Bernstein, Eleventh Circuit, the committee had a highly productive fiscal year. (This link goes to the administrative order governing the committee’s 2014 – 16 term.)
One of the committee’s most ambitious tasks was to develop an educational campaign on implicit bias, and it addressed this project on several fronts. For instance, it utilized a National Center of State Courts grant to fund a half-day presentation on the Science of Decision Making, which has come to play an important role in developing training for judges (the presentation led to the formulation of a standardized curriculum and a toolbox to provide judges with the necessary foundations for devising and implementing their own fairness and diversity policies and procedures). The committee also developed a two-day Diversity Trainer Course, at which 12 court staff from around the state received training on how to deliver and/or facilitate diversity training in their own circuits. Moreover, the committee created a diversity repository for judges and court staff that comprises resources on diversity, implicit bias, and related materials. (Take this link to visit the repository.) The committee also reconstituted the trial and appellate court diversity teams; established in 2006, the 26 diversity teams support committee efforts to coordinate local training programs for judges and court staff and to develop and promote diversity awareness initiatives at the local level. Finally, committee members traveled around Florida to offer diversity trainings, participate in diversity events, and give talks about how to build awareness of implicit bias. For example, committee members conducted fairness and diversity education programs for judges at the Seventh and Eleventh Circuits; presented at a fairness and diversity summit for court personnel at the Tenth Circuit; attended several Minority Mentoring Picnics; and gave diversity presentations at two law schools (Stetson and Nova Southeastern).
The committee also developed a best practices guide to provide useful advice and direction to Florida judges and court staff on the implementation of court diversity strategies and initiatives. The Diversity Best Practices Guide, described as “a positive and practical tool that can be used for recognizing and eliminating biased behaviors from court operations,” is organized around four topic areas: Leadership, Education, Access to Courts, and Public Perception. It is available on the Fairness and Diversity page of the flcourts website, and print versions have been distributed to every circuit. (This link goes to the Best Practices Guide.)
Furthermore, building on outreach efforts undertaken during its prior two-year term, the committee continued to collaborate with The Florida Bar, local bar associations, community organizations, Florida law schools, and other partners to advance fairness and diversity initiatives in the Florida justice system. Outreach endeavors include serving on various local, statewide, and national boards and associations, for instance, as well as building partnerships with state law schools, local bar chapters, and mentoring foundations.
And, finally, the committee explored funding opportunities for fairness and diversity education programs, identifying the Florida Court Education Council and The Florida Bar’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee as promising funding entities.
Judge Bernstein chaired the Standing Committee on Fairness and Diversity from 2008 – 2016; as of July 1, 2016, the committee is being chaired by Judge Peter F. Estrada, Tenth Circuit, with Judge Claudia Isom, Thirteenth Circuit, serving as vice chair. (Take this link to access the administrative order governing the committee’s 2016 – 18 term.)