2015-16 Annual Report
Issue 3: Improve Understanding of the Judicial Process
Studies have consistently demonstrated that when people have greater knowledge and understanding of the American justice system and the role of the courts within it, their confidence in and support for the courts is heightened. In aspiring to convey timely, consistent, and useful information to court audiences through traditional as well as innovative communication methods, and in developing educational events and activities for “students” of all ages, the judicial branch provides Floridians with a panoply of opportunities to learn about the role, functions, and accomplishments of their courts—and helps to foster a more engaged, active, and conscientious citizenry.
- Branch-wide Court Communication Plan
- Education and Outreach Initiatives
In 2015, at the same time the Judicial Management Council was revising the branch’s long-range plan, it was considering strategies for advancing the communication-related goals that the plan was readying to announce. Crafted with input from judges, court public information officers and other court staff, and the press, the branch-wide communication plan, Delivering Our Message: Court Communication Plan for the Judicial Branch of Florida 2016, aims to help the courts build relationships with a variety of partners, enhance public understanding of and support for the branch, speak clearly and purposefully about the branch, support open lines of communication, and communicate effectively using coordinated, strategic efforts. For additional background about the communication plan, please see the Short History of Florida State Courts System Processes, Programs, and Initiatives (Page 32 - PDF version).
Delivering Our Message is organized around four high priority strategic issues that must be addressed over the long term in order to achieve these levels of meaningful communication: Enhancing Public Trust and Confidence; Speaking with One Voice – Key Court Messages; Improving Communication Methods; and Strengthening Internal Communication. Although each strategic issue identifies a set of goals as well as suggested strategies for achieving those goals, the courts are given discretion to determine how to address them based on local needs and resources. To ensure that each court has the opportunity to develop creative solutions that work best for it, Chief Justice Jorge Labarga charged the courts’ designated public information officers (PIOs) with putting the plan into effect in their respective circuits/DCAs. (This link goes to the communication plan.)
Implementation began in January 2016, and in March, after participating in a two-and-a-half-day Court Community Communication Workshop to learn about their responsibilities in helping to realize the plan and to prepare themselves for this task, the PIOs agreed that one of their first undertakings should be to improve their outreach to the public and to develop effective public information programs. For many of Florida’s state courts, this commitment has already been bearing fruit. Achievements include developing social media accounts; launching podcast series; improving their websites; establishing communication committees; and creating or expanding their educational programs.
PIOs are especially excited about opportunities to use social media as a communication tool—both to meet the needs of the public and to promote transparency. Twelve circuits (the second, third, fourth, fifth, seventh, eighth, ninth, eleventh, fourteenth, fifteenth, eighteenth, and twentieth), the supreme court, and OSCA have all integrated Twitter into their websites; in addition, three circuits (the sixth, ninth, and eighteenth), the supreme court, and OSCA all have Facebook accounts. Several courts are utilizing Linkedin and Instagram as well. Moreover, two courts have begun podcasting—the Ninth Circuit began in August 2016, and the Eleventh Circuit began in February 2017—and the supreme court is getting ready to launch its first podcast (the first podcast will be an interview with the chief justice about the communication plan). Take this link to access all the Florida courts social media accounts.
On another front, PIOs report that the communication plan has spurred their courts to give more, or new, thought to the organization and content on their websites; indeed, almost every circuit is either entirely redesigning its website or reorganizing and updating it. Meanwhile, the appellate courts have a workgroup that is tasked with developing a template for redesigning the website of each DCA and the supreme court. The aim of these efforts is to better serve the public and improve access to information.
One of the main goals of the communication plan is to promote a unified message and speak with one voice, and most courts have also been making strides in informing judges and employees about the importance of key court messages; courts have been discussing key messages in meetings with judges and court staff and are posting them on their websites.
Courts are also renewing their focus on educational outreach and relationship-building. For example, many courts have been working with the media to educate and inform them about policies, procedures, and court operations. Most courts are conducting courthouse tours, with many tailoring their tours to the type of group visiting. Also, chief judges have been actively involved in building and maintaining relationships with officials from all branches of government. (Take this link to read more about the wealth of court-community relationship-building activities that are taking place across the state.)
As they build on their work to meet the goals of the communication plan, Florida’s court PIOs are looking to expand their websites, social media presence, educational programs, internal communication efforts, annual publications, and external outreach.
One of the ways the judicial branch seeks to earn the public’s trust and confidence is through creating opportunities for the people of Florida to learn about their courts. Every circuit and appellate court in Florida offers an inviting lineup of programs and activities that inform the public about the courts system—endeavors like courthouse tours, citizen guides, Justice Teaching and other school outreach efforts, teen courts, Law Day and Constitution Day activities, moot court competitions, Take Your Child to Work Day, juror appreciation events, “meet your judge” and “inside the courts” programs, adoption events, speakers bureaus, citizen advisory committees, and media outreach efforts. (This link goes to a compilation of court-community relationship activities by circuit and DCA). These activities are designed to educate people from all walks of life about the judicial branch, foster court-community relationships, and enhance people’s trust and confidence in their justice system.
The Short History of Florida State Courts System Processes, Programs, and Initiatives (Page 28 - PDF version) provides more information about branch efforts to deepen public understanding of the judicial process. This document also includes an extensive chronicle of branch endeavors to strengthen people’s trust and confidence in their courts (p. 35). In addition, the Education and Outreach tab on the Florida Courts website offers a host of resources for enhancing viewers’ knowledge of Florida’s courts system. Described below are some of the other ways in which the branch strives to provide Floridians with positive, meaningful interactions with their courts.
Instituted in 1998, Judicial Campaign Conduct Forums are generally offered in the spring of election years for circuits in which a contested judicial election will be taking place. These 90-minute forums focus on the value of integrity and professionalism among candidates for judicial office, the impact of campaign conduct on public trust and confidence in the justice system, and the weighty consequences of violations of Canon 7 of the Code of Judicial Conduct, which governs political conduct by judges and judicial candidates.
The forums are coordinated by the supreme court, the trial court chief judges, the Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee, and the Board of Governors of The Florida Bar. All judicial candidates are encouraged to attend, and the forums are also open to campaign managers and their staff, local political party chairs, presidents of local bar associations, the media, and the public. In May 2016, Judicial Campaign Conduct Forums were conducted in 10 cities across Florida.
Recognizing the importance of playing a proactive role in deepening reporters’ understanding of the courts system, the supreme court has hosted an Annual Reporters Workshop since 1989. Presented by The Florida Bar Media and Communications Law Committee and subsidized by The Florida Bar Foundation, these two-day events are designed to teach the basics of legal reporting to journalists new to the legal/courts beat, providing them with a helpful introduction to covering justice system issues. Conducted by justices, judges, attorneys, professors, and veteran reporters, the sessions vary from year to year, but they often focus on matters like effective techniques for reporting high-profile cases; merit retention in Florida; public records and how to get the records you need; libel law and defamation; lawyer regulation; and journalism in the world of social media.
A law-related education initiative that aims to partner every elementary, middle, and high school in the state with a legal professional, the Justice Teaching Initiative was founded by then Chief Justice R. Fred Lewis in 2006 and is coordinated by the Florida Law Related Education Association. Its goal is to promote an understanding of Florida’s justice system and laws, develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and demonstrate the effective interaction of Florida’s courts within the constitutional structure. Currently, more than 4,000 lawyers and judges serve as resources for Justice Teaching, and all the state’s public schools, and hundreds of its private schools, have Justice Teaching volunteers. After registering for the program, volunteers participate in a training session before visiting their assigned school; armed with a wealth of lessons and interactive strategies that the supreme court features on its Justice Teaching website, these volunteers seek to involve students in engaging exchanges about the justice system and its effects on their lives. (Take this link to the Justice Teaching Initiative website.)
Initially designed in response to a national study documenting the public’s lack of, and need for, court-related information, this program was first offered in 1997, when then Chief Justice Gerald Kogan conceived it as part of the Florida Supreme Court’s Sesquicentennial Celebration. Since then, each year, up to 25 secondary school teachers from across the state are selected to participate in this comprehensive, five-day education initiative on the fundamentals of the judicial branch. The program is sponsored and hosted by the supreme court, funded by The Florida Bar Foundation, and coordinated by the Florida Law Related Education Association. (Take this link to the Justice Teaching Institute webpage.)
Taught primarily by the seven justices, two “mentor judges,” and Ms Annette Boyd Pitts, executive director of the Florida Law Related Education Association, the institute introduces the teachers to the structure and functions of the state courts system, the state versus the federal courts systems, the criminal court process, the Florida constitution, the case study method, legal research skills, and the constitutional issues underlying an actual case that is about to be argued before the court. The highlight of the program is the teachers’ own mock oral argument on the very case for which the justice themselves are preparing. The Justice Teaching Institute is one of the courts system’s most promising efforts to introduce school children to the vital role courts play in our society. For more information about the Justice Teaching Institute, please see the Short History of Florida State Courts System Processes, Programs, and Initiatives (Page 33 - PDF version).
Visitors to the state capital can entertain a variety of options for learning about the history and functions of Florida’s highest court and the fundamentals of Florida’s courts system. One of the most intriguing ways to learn about the inner working of the supreme court is to attend an oral argument—a “conversation” between the justices and attorneys, during which the attorneys clarify the legal reasons for their position and answer questions posed by the justices. Oral arguments are held once a month and are open to the public. (For more information about oral argument and the oral argument schedule, follow this link.) Those who cannot attend oral arguments or who are interested in archived ones (going back to 1997) can view them online, via WFSU’s Gavel to Gavel. (This link goes to Gavel to Gavel.) Information about high-profile supreme court cases, both current and archived, is also available online. (Take this link for information about high-profile cases and other high-profile matters.)
The Florida Supreme Court also offers tours for student groups and for other groups of all ages. Visitors who are at least high-school age can take the guided, 45-minute Educational Tour; the guided Building Tour is available for all age groups; another option is the Self-Guided Tour, designed for those who prefer to furnish themselves with informational brochures and tour at their own pace.
In addition, the court offers education programs for student groups and for various kinds of youth leadership groups. Teachers and other youth leaders bring groups of young people to the supreme court from all across the state—and the court is especially well-visited during the 60-day legislative session. These groups can participate in two different educational activities at the court. Fourth graders through college students can participate in the 40-minute Educational Program, which takes place in the supreme court courtroom. And for fifth graders through college students, the court offers the Mock Oral Argument Experience, a 75-minute program that prepares them to act out an oral argument using a hypothetical case. The majority of young visitors are on school trips, but youth leadership groups recently hosted by the court include Girls State, Boys State, 4-H, the Florida House/Senate Page and Messenger Programs, the Florida State University Criminal Justice Fraternity, the Close Up Foundation, and several high school and university moot court teams. All told, in the 2015 – 16 FY, the court led 138 Educational Tours and guided 51 student groups through the Mock Oral Argument Experience; between them, the two programs reached nearly 7,500 participants. (This link goes to more information about the tours and education programs at the supreme court.)
The supreme court is also a popular destination for adult leadership groups of all kinds. These groups take a guided tour of the public areas of the building, and they are welcomed by, and learn something new about the justice system from, one of the justices. In the 2015 – 16 FY, 11 leadership groups, which comprised a total of 380 leaders, visited the court; among them were a group of civics teachers from Leon County Schools; members of the Association of Florida Colleges; the 2016 Leadership Tallahassee class; the information specialists from the Florida State Library and State Archives; members of a local church; and several Department of Children and Families Leadership Groups. For more information about supreme court tours and education programs, please see the Short History of Florida State Courts System Processes, Programs, and Initiatives (Page 29 - PDF version).
Established in 1845, the Florida Supreme Court Library is the oldest of Florida’s state-supported libraries. It was originally designed for use by the supreme court and the attorneys who practice before it; however, it now serves the entire state courts system. Library staff also respond to calls for assistance from other law libraries, law firms, and state agencies, and the library is open to the public as well: people can do legal or historical research there, and school, family, and adult groups are invited to contemplate the treasures in the rare book room and admire the archival wonders on display in the reading room. (To visit the library’s website, follow this link.) For more background information about the supreme court library and archives, please see the Short History of Florida State Courts System Processes, Programs, and Initiatives (Page 30 - PDF version).
The library is also home to the supreme court archives, which contain primary documents of Florida Supreme Court history related to the court and its justices. In FY 2015 – 16, the library archivist continued inventorying the papers of former Justice James Alderman (on the bench from 1978 – 1985); the justice’s speeches and his personal and administrative work papers are now catalogued. In addition, the archivist rehoused seven boxes of papers of the supreme court’s Gender Bias Study Commission (established in 1987), and he began arranging, rehousing, and creating a preliminary inventory of 37 boxes of papers of the supreme court’s Racial and Ethnic Bias Study Commission (established in 1989). Recent donations to the archives include court papers related to the 1998 revision of section 14 to Article V of the of the Florida Constitution (commonly known as Revision 7) as well as 10 boxes of notebooks and papers associated with the Florida Innocence Commission (2009 – 2012); former Justice Rosemary Barkett (on the bench from 1985 – 94) also donated boxes containing memorabilia, articles and videos about her, and papers dealing with administrative matters. In addition, the 1847 book The Florida War, a contemporary account of the Second Seminole War that is considered one of the most significant accounts of Florida History, was donated to the rare book collection. (Follow this link to learn about the materials housed in the archives.)
Finally, in the supreme court rotunda, the library prepared an exhibit of books and documents of the Bourbon era of Florida history (1987 – 1902)—a period during which former slave owners and wealthy elites from before the Civil War regained control of state and local government, created a new state constitution that institutionalized their power, and launched the economic development of the state that continues to this day. The display contained a number of original items that date back to this era.
Also, from February 15 – 26, 2016, the rotunda offered a rare and special treat for those who work in the supreme court and for its visitors: a traveling exhibit honoring the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta by King John of England at Runnymede in 1215. “Magna Carta: Enduring Legacy 1215 – 2015,” which consisted of images of objects from the Library of Congress collection, illustrated the importance of this “Great Charter,” considered one of the most important legal documents in the history of democracy—and one of the most enduring symbols of liberty under the rule of law.
To familiarize people with the judicial branch and to enhance communication between the courts and other justice system entities, the legislature, and the executive branch, OSCA’s Innovations and Outreach Unit, under the direction of the supreme court, produces the Florida State Courts Annual Report each year. (This link goes to the annual reports.) In addition, several times each year, the Innovations and Outreach Unit publishes the Full Court Press, the official newsletter of the state courts system, whose aim is to share information about local and statewide court-based initiatives and programs, to promote communication among Florida’s state courts, and to serve as a kind of “meeting place” for all the members of the state courts family, both immediate and extended. (Take this link to the newsletters.)