2016-17 Annual Report
Issue 1: Deliver Justice Effectively, Efficiently, and Fairly
The Florida judicial branch is keenly aware of its responsibility to serve justice fairly and to govern itself effectively, efficiently, and accountably. These duties are especially weighty in this age of increasingly complex workloads and constrained resources—and in light of the growing need to provide additional assistance and services for self-represented litigants and other court users. To meet these responsibilities, branch leaders persist in their efforts to ensure the judiciary has sufficient and stable funding, and they continue to work steadfastly to strengthen the governance and policy development structures of the branch.
- State Court System Funding
- Judicial Management Council
- Peformance and Accountability
Judges and court staff are committed to using their resources carefully, 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 adequate and reliable funding of Florida’s courts is enduring.
When courts have outstanding, critical funding needs, judges, staff, and courtrooms are certainly 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 at risk are the state’s aging trial courthouses, which are often beset by safety or security issues that can put people in harm’s way. In addition, a dearth of adequate resources can jeopardize opportunities to modernize and enhance court operations—opportunities that maximize 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 one 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.
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 few years, 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 district courts of appeal, such as critical and significant funding for 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).
As mentioned above, the budget also included funding for several pass through/legislative projects. For example, included in the trial court budget was funding for children’s advocacy centers and for substance abuse treatment. In addition, the legislature provided funding for establishing problem-solving courts (drug courts, veterans treatment courts, and mental health courts) or expanding them.
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 can be maximized throughout the year.
Leading up to the March 2017 legislative session, state economists, anticipating tightening revenues and projected shortfalls for the 2018 – 19 and 2019 – 20 fiscal years, urged lawmakers to adopt budget management strategies as they crafted the 2017 – 18 budget, with the goal of trying to minimize future shortfalls. In response, legislative appropriations panels developed proposals for budget cuts and advised the judicial branch and other state entities to consider potential budget reduction impacts as they crafted their legislative budget requests.
Within this context of anticipated budget constrictions, from its $84.9 billion budget in FY 2017 – 18, lawmakers appropriated $513.8 million to the judicial branch. [Note: this figure includes $20.2 million for pass through/legislative project funding (i.e., worthy projects, but unrelated to the courts’ core mission and not requested by the courts); $7.7 million in nonrecurring funds; and $5.8 million for legislatively approved supplemental appropriations related to FY 2017 – 18 increased costs in employee-related benefits and expenses.]
The branch’s top priority was a pay increase for judges and court staff, and this budget funded a portion of that priority: specifically, effective October 1, 2017, the pay for justices and judges was increased by 10 percent. The other portion of that priority was a request for recurring funds for the second phase of a strategy to address recruitment, retention, and equity issues affecting court employees. Although this request was unsuccessful, the budget did provide an across-the-board pay raise for all eligible state employees (effective October 1, 2017, employees with a base rate of pay of $40,000 or less received an annual increase of $1,400, and employees with a base rate of pay greater than $40,000 received an annual increase of $1,000).
The budget also provided critical funding to complete the renovation project at the Third DCA. In addition, lawmakers funded a number of estimable projects that were not included in the courts system’s legislative budget request. These projects included drug court funding (Seminole County); juvenile drug court funding (Eighteenth Circuit); veterans court funding (Collier, Lake, Leon, Marion, Miami-Dade, Nassau, and Seminole counties); courthouse emergency renovations repairs (Liberty County); various children’s advocacy center-related initiatives; and funding for drugs used to treat the underlying addiction to opioids.
Despite extensive advocacy by the branch and its partners, however, funding was not approved for any of the issues requested by the trial courts and included in the judicial branch budget request (the trial courts sought funding for comprehensive technology improvements, including funding to develop and maintain case processing and management systems, to refresh and maintain court reporting equipment, and to provide a minimum level of infrastructure in counties around the state; they also requested funding for court interpreting services, court case management positions, and staff attorney positions). Furthermore, the budget reduced the salary appropriation of the trial courts by $2 million, with no reduction in staff (in expectation that the courts could absorb the reduction through salary lapse generated when positions are not immediately filled, for instance); the budget also eliminated 39 unfunded trial court positions. To address the budget cut, the trial courts implemented a hiring freeze, which created a workload hardship. Finally, the legislature did not fund the 12 new judgeships certified by the supreme court—nor did it decertify the six judgeships that the court proposed for elimination. (This link goes to the December 2016 supreme court opinion, Certification of Need for Additional Judges).
Even with record-breaking levels of tourism in Florida, state economists continue to warn of imminent revenue shortfalls (recovery costs for Hurricane Irma as well as increasing costs for human services—largely Medicaid—and for growth in K – 12 enrollment, for instance, are likely to exacerbate a budget gap). As lawmakers begin to consider the 2018 – 19 budget, which will be hammered out in the legislative session that begins on January 9, 2018, economists emphasize that taking a proactive approach in the coming fiscal year will go a long way toward lessening future fiscal disruptions.
Since 1953, the judicial branch has relied on the guidance and recommendations of its judicial management councils (JMCs), which are considered high-level management consultants to the supreme court. The current council—the fifth iteration of the JMC, established in November 2012—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.” Its first chair, then Chief Justice Ricky Polston, called the JMC the “headlights of the branch, shining a high beam toward the future.” Chief Justice Jorge Labarga, who chairs the council now, refers to the JMC as “the workhorse of the judicial branch.” For more information about the work of the branch’s five JMCs, please see the Short History of Florida State Court System Processes, Programs, and Initiatives.
The current JMC was designed to be an agile body that can respond quickly and purposefully to challenges facing the branch. It achieves this dexterity through the creation of workgroups that are charged with specific tasks and are dissolved when their tasks have been accomplished. Of the workgroups established in the JMC’s first term, three have already completed their charges. 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, Delivering Our Message: Court Communication Plan for the Judicial Branch of Florida, which was approved by the court and began to be implemented in January 2016. And the Long-Range Strategic Planning Workgroup revised the Long-Range Strategic Plan for the Florida Judicial Branch 2016 – 2021, which was approved by the court and began to be implemented in January 2016.
The Access to Justice 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 developed for this initiative, called the Do It Yourself (DIY) Florida Project, functions much like tax preparation software: it guides users through a series of questions, culminating in the production of a court document that can be reviewed, edited, and filed through the e-portal. At this point, landlord/tenant (evictions) interviews have been completed and reviewed by the workgroup, and a 90-day testing phase is currently underway. Once the testing phase is finished, the JMC anticipates these interviews will go “live” and be available for public use. The workgroup has also been focusing on small claims cases and some simple dissolution of marriage matters: for small claims cases, interviews for each statement of claim have been developed and combined to create a single interview process that channels each user to the correct statement of claims; for dissolution of marriage cases, decision trees and questions (including answers and counter-petitions in these matters) have been developed for cases both with and without minor or dependent children. DIY Florida is just one of several “access to civil justice initiatives” supported by the supreme court. (To read about some of these other access initiatives, please see the Short History.)
During the 2016 – 17 fiscal year, Chief Justice Labarga created two new JMC workgroups: the Trial Court Security Workgroup and the Guardianship Workgroup.
The Trial Court Security Workgroup
Formed in August 2016, the Trial Court Security Workgroup, chaired by Judge Margaret Steinbeck, Twentieth Circuit, was created, in part, to address goal 4.1 of the long-range plan: “Protect all judges, court personnel, court users, and facilities through effective security, emergency preparedness, and continuity of operations plans.” (Note, in September 2015, the chief justice created a task force to address appellate court security issues; this link goes to the administrative order governing the Task Force on Appellate Court Safety and Security.) The increasing incidences of mass violence and anti-government violence across the globe—and, in particular, the rise in security threats and violent incidents in court buildings—also spurred the formation of the Trial Court Security Workgroup. This workgroup is charged with evaluating security procedures, practices, and perceptions at Florida’s courthouses; reviewing national courthouse security procedures and consulting with professionals and experts on model practices; identifying important elements of security in trial court facilities; developing standards, model procedures, and recommendations for appropriate training; establishing criteria for a statewide reporting system for security incidents; and identifying effective partnerships and opportunities for partnerships in providing and promoting security in courthouses. This link goes to the press release announcing the creation of the Trial Court Security Workgroup.
To advance its charges, the workgroup began by performing a broad review of security issues in Florida’s trial courts: members examined current security practices, studied security trends in Florida and across the country, and identified some specific local challenges in providing trial court security. In addition, to assist in formulating recommendations to promote safety and security, the workgroup toured seven different courthouse facilities across the state. And to deepen their conversation and deliberations about court security, workgroup members brought in subject matter experts from the National Center for State Courts, various Florida sheriff’s departments, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the US Department of Homeland Security, and county management. Finally, facilitated by the workgroup, the US Department of Homeland Security and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement partnered with local law enforcement and court personnel to conduct a critical infrastructure assessment survey of a county courthouse and offered to conduct additional security assessments in the coming months; these security assessment surveys will help identify security challenges and opportunities at the local courthouse level. The workgroup’s final report, which will be submitted to the supreme court by June 30, 2018, will include recommendations designed to assist the judicial branch in further safeguarding its facilities and the people who work in and visit Florida’s courthouses.
The Guardianship Workgroup
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 guardianship cases, a court appoints someone to exercise certain legal rights of a person who, because of some incapacity, has been judged unable to exercise those rights independently. Although guardianship is not just for elderly people, Florida’s burgeoning elderly population has significantly intensified the growth in guardianship cases. The Guardianship Workgroup, formed in October 2016, was established to try to address this potential crisis situation.
Chaired by Judge Olin Shinholser (ret.), Tenth Circuit, the workgroup has been tasked with examining judicial procedures and best practices pertaining to guardianship to ensure that courts are most fittingly 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. It is also studying guardianship issues in the court system with the goal of improving accountability to better protect these vulnerable people. Other workgroup considerations include 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. This link goes to the press release announcing the creation of the Guardianship Workgroup.
In preparation for meeting their charges, workgroup members began by reviewing the history of guardianship efforts in Florida and across the nation; participating in an exercise to ponder the significant events in the lifecycle of a guardianship case and to assess the way in which each event typically unfolds—and the way in which each should/could ideally unfold; considering the differences between the Uniform Adult Guardianship and Protective Proceedings Jurisdiction Act and Florida guardianship law; and studying literature on guardianship laws, procedures, and best practices across the country. Based on the above, the workgroup developed a recommendation concept list, which it continues to refine and will present to the supreme court in its final report. The final report will also reflect information derived from responses to a survey requesting feedback on the workgroup’s recommendations for improvements; from two public hearings designed to glean community input regarding guardianship practices; and from the workgroup’s collaboration with the newly formed Florida WINGS initiative (the Working Interdisciplinary Networks of Guardianship Stakeholders is a state court-community partnership developed by the National Guardianship Network to identify ways to advance guardianship reform). The report will be submitted to the court by October 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 to ensure they use public resources efficiently and transparently. In response to the increasing workload demands on these committees, the supreme court separated them out from the Judicial Management Council in 2002, establishing each as a discrete commission.
The Commission on District Court of Appeal 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. These commissions address several of the goals identified in the branch’s long-range plan. In particular, they support branch efforts to “utilize caseload and other workload information to manage resources and promote accountability” (goal 1.3); to “ensure the fair and timely resolution of all cases through effective case management” (goal 1.2); and to “encourage the use of consistent practices, procedures, and forms statewide” (goal 1.5).
Every two years via administrative order, the supreme court re-establishes each commission and directs it to work on particular issues and projects. (Please follow this link to read the administrative order governing the current term of the DCAP&A. And this link goes to the administrative order governing the current term of the TCP&A.) Below are the major initiatives on which these commissions, often in collaboration with other commissions or committees, focused during the 2016 – 17 fiscal year.
The DCAP&A concentrated on three projects in fiscal year 2016 – 17: it continued its efforts to improve timeframes for dependency and termination of parental rights appeals; it has been re-assessing staffing models for the positions under the appellate clerks of court; and it began working to identify and establish performance indicators for the development of an online dashboard that will convey data about appellate court performance to the public.
Dependency and Termination of Parental Rights Appeals
Since 2011, the DCAP&A has been responsible for monitoring the timeliness of dependency and termination of parental rights appeals cases with the goal of minimizing the harm to children affected by these sensitive family proceedings. The commission found that while the district courts meet the overall goal of 165 days from Notice of Appeal to Disposition, they were not consistently meeting the timeframes for document receipt (Notice of Appeal to Record, Record to Initial Brief, Initial Brief to Answer Brief, and Answer Brief to Reply Brief). To address this issue, in 2014, the supreme court directed the DCAP&A and the TCP&A to form a joint workgroup to determine the causes of the document delays in these cases and to recommend strategies to advance the receipt of documents at the appellate level.
In its report, the workgroup noted that several rules and court procedures are already in place to address delays—but they may be inadvertently overlooked in practice; other recommendations stressed efforts to enhance communication and provide notice in advance of these appeals. The workgroup submitted its recommendations to the supreme court, and in a February 2017 administrative order, the court adopted them, saying, “Implementation of these practices on the part of all stakeholders will greatly reduce the delays in these cases, for the benefit of the children involved.” (This link goes to the administrative order.)
In an effort to encourage the adoption of these policies by everyone involved in moving these cases forward, soon after the administrative order was released, Judges Salter and Moreland, the chairs of the two performance and accountability commissions, sent a joint letter to all the DCA and circuit chief judges, asking them to share the administrative order with the judges, clerks, and court administration in their courts. “Simple efforts on the part of all stakeholders, including judges, clerks, court reporters, trial court administration, and appellate counsel, would greatly reduce delays in dependency/TPR appeal cases,” they wrote, stressing that “Each reduction in time on appeal is a direct benefit to the child in the time to permanency.” The DCAP&A will continue to monitor the timeframes, gauging the extent to which the adoption of these practices mitigates the delays in document receipt.
Staffing Models for the Appellate Clerks of Court
The DCAP&A has been working with the appellate clerks of court to re-assess staffing models for positions in the appellate clerks’ offices (these positions include deputy clerks who handle a variety of discrete functions, such as processing incoming pleadings, docketing incoming briefs, preparing and entering orders and mandates, and managing files and records).
The last time the clerk staff model was reviewed was in 2012. At that time, a Joint Workgroup on Model Staffing Levels, comprising members of the DCAP&A and the DCA Budget Commission, was created to develop recommendations for allocating all district staff resources—i.e., central staff attorneys, law clerks, judicial assistants, marshal’s office personnel, and clerk’s office personnel. Since then, e-filing and other automated court processes have been implemented in the district courts—likely affecting the workload of clerk office positions. Thus the DCAP&A is in the process of revisiting the clerk staffing model to determine whether it needs to be modified to reflect changes wrought by the introduction of these technologies.
Performance Indicators for an Online Dashboard
Trial court and supreme court caseload data are readily available to the public (this link goes to trial court statistics; this link goes to supreme court caseload statistics). To provide a complete picture of judicial branch performance, the DCAP&A is working to include caseload information about Florida’s DCAs in a similar fashion. Providing this information is a way to enhance public trust and confidence in the work of the district courts; thus, in collaboration with the Appellate Court Technology Committee, the commission has been working to identify and develop performance indicators for an online dashboard that will convey caseload information to the general public.
In other states, appellate courts, if they provide caseload information at all, tend to publish data within periodic written reports that focus on performance measures. The dashboard concept envisioned by commission members will reflect court performance directly on a public webpage, and the data will be updated quarterly or annually on an ongoing basis. DCAP&A staff are now working with OSCA’s Office of Information Technology to move this concept forward. The commission anticipates housing this public dashboard on the Florida Courts website (www.flcourts.org).
While the DCAs have been state-funded for many years, the state did not assume responsibility for funding the trial courts until the July 2004 implementation of what is commonly referred to as Revision 7 (a voter-approved amendment to Article V, section 14, of the Florida Constitution). Before then, 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 the goal of providing better, more uniform services across all circuits.
During the 2016 – 17 fiscal year, in addition to its participation in the Joint Due Process Workgroup, the TCP&A worked on five major technology initiatives: the Integrated Trial Court Adjudicatory System, the Trial Court Performance Management Framework, the Uniform Case Reporting Project, the Juvenile Dependency Workload Tracking Study, and Shared Remote Interpreting. Readers interested in learning about these technology projects can read about them below, in the annual report’s Court Technology section.
Joint Due Process Workgroup
Due process means the conducting of legal proceedings in accordance with established rules and principles, designed to ensure that all people receive equal treatment under the law. Within the context of Florida’s courts system, due process elements are the resources that directly protect the fundamental constitutional and legal rights of court litigants. Those resources are expert witnesses (who provide independent expert opinions concerning scientific or technical matters in dispute or concerning the physical, psychological, or mental condition of people in court matters involving fundamental rights); court interpreting (which eliminates barriers in the courts system for litigants with disabilities or limited ability to communicate in English); and court reporting (which creates and preserves a record of words spoken in court and provides their timely and accurate transcription in the event an appeal is filed).
Because the provision of due process services involves both policy and fiscal considerations, the Joint Due Process Workgroup, established in 2015, comprises members both from the TCP&A and from the Trial Court Budget Commission (TCBC). Co-chaired by TCBC member Judge John Stargel, Tenth Circuit, and TCP&A chair Judge Moreland, the workgroup is responsible for identifying factors affecting the cost of providing expert witness, court interpreting, and court reporting services in the trial courts and for developing recommendations to improve the provision of these services.
The workgroup was asked to begin by identifying funding and operational policy changes that could improve the provision of court-appointed expert witness services. Based on information gathered through a multi-faceted research approach, the workgroup submitted five types of recommended solutions (fiscal, operational, policy, statutory, and administrative) for process improvements and cost containment mechanisms for the appointment and payment of expert witnesses. In a February 2017 administrative order, the supreme court approved recommendations made in the workgroup’s report, Expert Witnesses in Florida’s Trial Courts, and included recommendations proposed in a 2014 TCP&A report called Recommendations on the Provision of Court Appointed Expert Witnesses Services in Florida’s Trial Courts. Among the recommendations were proposals requiring circuits to adopt written policies governing the appointment and payment of expert witnesses, to select expert witnesses from a registry maintained by the circuit, and to appoint one expert initially in standard competency proceedings. The workgroup also recommended the use of a uniform invoice for expert witness services; the development of a uniform contract for these services; the establishment of a statewide rate structure for the payment of certain expert witness fees; and the implementation of an educational component for judges and court staff. Most of the recommendations have already been implemented. (See the administrative order adopting the workgroup’s recommendations.)
Now working on court interpreting services, the workgroup analyzed current policies, practices, and rates in each circuit; evaluated the current Uniform Data Reporting information; and surveyed trial court administrators regarding existing resource allocations and cost containment measures. Based on the information it gathered, the workgroup identified two key issues that affect the provision of interpreting services in the trial court: the scope of the types of proceedings in which an interpreter is provided and the difficulty in hiring and retaining certified staff interpreters. The workgroup is now researching the first issue and exploring solutions for the second.