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2016-17 Annual Report

Issue 3: Improve Understanding of the Judicial Process

Long-Range Strategic Plan for the Judicial Branch of Florida 2016-2021
The judicial branch’s legal authority is a grant by the people and public trust and confidence in the judicial branch is at the heart of maintaining a democratic society.  Promoting public trust and confidence in the courts enhances the effectiveness of court actions, strengthens judicial impartiality, and improves the ability of courts to fulfill their mission.  Improved communication, collaboration, and education efforts will better inform the public about the judicial branch’s role, mission, and vision.

Studies have regularly revealed that when people have a greater knowledge and understanding of the American justice system and the role of the courts within it, their confidence in and support for their courts is heightened.  With that in mind, through traditional as well as more contemporary communication methods, and through educational events and activities for “students” of all ages, the judicial branch endeavors to provide Floridians with a wealth of opportunities to learn about the roles, functions, responsibilities, and accomplishments of their courts.  In working to meet the goals of the branch-wide communication plan, and in developing a bounty of education and outreach initiatives, Florida’s courts seek to deliver timely, consistent, and useful information to all its key audiences: the public; court users; judicial branch partners and stakeholders; government entities; education, business, and civic organizations; the media; and, of course, judges and court personnel. 

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Branch-wide Court Communication Plan

In 2015, while the Judicial Management Council was revising the branch’s long-range plan, it was simultaneously considering strategies for advancing the communication-related goals that the plan was getting ready to announce.  Shaped 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, seeks 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.  Implementation began in January 2016.  (For more background about the communication plan, please see the Short History of Florida State Courts System Processes, Programs, and Initiatives.)

Chief Justice Jorge Labarga charged the courts’ designated public information officers (PIOs) with putting the plan into effect in their respective circuits/district courts of appeal, directing them to design strategies and activities that best respond to local needs and resources.  PIOs agreed that their first undertakings should be to improve their outreach to the public and to develop effective public information programs.  The Year One Implementation report, prepared by the Florida Supreme Court Public Information Office and released in May 2017, details the abundant successes that the courts have already achieved. 

Recognizing that their websites are their primary communication tool, for instance, 18 of Florida’s 20 circuits and all the District Courts of Appeal (DCAs) have been reviewing and revamping the organization and content of their websites with the goal of improving access to information for the public.  The PIOs have also been working to fortify their relations with the media, educating court personnel and judges in the methods needed to work cooperatively and respectfully with reporters.  PIOs have also supported the expansion of court outreach programs such as courthouse tours for schoolchildren, citizen forums, and public education programs.  At the same time, they have been working to strengthen internal communications; for instance, they pointed to improvements made in crisis communications with judges and court staff in anticipation of, during, and in the aftermath of the hurricanes that struck Florida in 2017.    

In addition, while Florida’s courts naturally continue to debate the pros and cons of social media, given the strict ethical limits under which they operate, they now universally use Twitter to communicate during emergency situations and to promulgate high-profile case information: in fact, 18 circuits, all five DCAs, and the supreme court and OSCA are active on Twitter now.  Further, the supreme court, OSCA, and several circuits are also active on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.  And three courts—the Ninth Circuit, the Eleventh Circuit, and the supreme court—have begun producing podcasts to communicate with the public.  (From this link, access each Florida court’s social media accounts; this link goes to the Year One Implementation report.) 

The courts’ burgeoning social media presence could not have been timelier.  Indeed, in September 2017, social media played a crucial role in meeting the crises wrought by Hurricane Irma, the catastrophic storm that brought coastal surge flooding, flooding rainfall, and damaging wind from the northern Leeward Islands to the Southeast US, leaving major devastation to 64 of Florida’s 67 counties in its wake.  As Craig Waters, the supreme court’s communications director, explained, “At the height of the storm, the state courts system had to perform a controlled shutdown of its entire statewide network.  In many instances this meant that court websites, email accounts, online dockets, and IP phones no longer worked.  Facebook and Twitter became the go-to means of communications for this period of time.  Courts from the supreme court all the way down to the trial level courts as well as the Office of the State Courts Administrator relied on Facebook and Twitter to get the word out about what was happening as the storm hit Florida.  This real-life result confirmed the key role for social media envisioned by the 2016 communications plan.”

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Education and Outreach Initiatives

The judicial branch has developed an abundance of opportunities for the people of Florida to learn about their courts.  Every circuit and appellate court in the state offers an array of programs and activities that inform the public about the courts system—among them, 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 Days, 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 relations activities by circuit and District Court of Appeal).  Through these activities, the judicial branch seeks to educate people from all walks of life about their courts system, to encourage vibrant court-community relationships, to enhance people’s trust and confidence in their justice system—and to help foster a more engaged, informed, responsible citizenry generally.

The Short History of Florida State Courts System Processes, Programs, and Initiatives provides more information about branch efforts to deepen public understanding of the third branch.  This document also includes an extensive chronicle of branch endeavors to strengthen trust and confidence in Florida’s courts.  In addition, the Education and Outreach tab on the Florida Courts website offers a host of resources for boosting 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.  

Judicial Campaign Conduct Forums

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 necessity for integrity and professionalism among candidates for judicial office, the impact of campaign conduct on public trust and confidence in the justice system, and the dire consequences of violating 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.  (To learn more about the standards for ethical behavior governing judicial candidates, see An Aid to Understanding Canon 7, prepared by the Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee.)  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.   

Annual Reporters Workshop

Recognizing the importance of playing a proactive role in heightening reporters’ understanding of the court 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 reporters who are new to the legal/courts beat, providing them with a helpful introduction to covering justice system issues.  The sessions—which are conducted by justices, judges, attorneys, professors, and veteran reporters—vary each year, but they generally focus on matters like effective techniques for reporting high-profile cases, merit retention in Florida, public records and how to obtain the ones you need, libel law and defamation, lawyer regulation, and journalism in the world of social media.

Justice Teaching Initiative

A law-related education program 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 governed by a select committee appointed by Justice Lewis.  Its goal is to promote students’ understanding of Florida’s justice system and laws, develop their critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and teach them about 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 now have Justice Teaching volunteers.  Justice Teaching provides a partnership model, resource materials including lessons and activities, and interactive methodologies to bring the courts and the constitution to life for Florida’s students.  (More information is available on the Justice Teaching website.)

Justice Teaching Institute

Initially conceived in response to a national study documenting the public’s lack of, and need for, court-related information, the Justice Teaching Institute was first offered in 1997, when then Chief Justice Gerald Kogan instituted 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.  (More information about the program can be found in the Short History of Florida State Courts System Processes, Programs, and Initiatives.) 

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 justices themselves are preparing.  The Justice Teaching Institute is one of the courts system’s most promising initiatives to support teachers’ efforts to introduce their students to the vital role courts play in our society.  (This link goes to the Justice Teaching Institute webpage.)

Visiting the Supreme Court: Oral Arguments, Education Tours, and Education Programs

Visitors to the state capital can enjoy 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 compelling ways to learn about the inner workings 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 watching archived ones (the archives go back to 1997) can view them online, via WFSU’s Gavel to Gavel.  Information about high-profile supreme court cases, both current and archived, is also available on the supreme court’s website and on Facebook live.

Visitors can also tour the public areas of the Florida Supreme Court Building.  Groups of 10 or more who are interested in a guided tour experience can take the 45-minute Educational Program/Tour, which begins in the supreme court courtroom and teaches participants about the judicial branch, Florida’s courts system, the differences between trial and appellate courts, and the role of the justices and how they are appointed and retained.  Smaller groups, and those who prefer to furnish themselves with informational brochures and set off at their own pace, can take a self-guided tour. 

Groups of young people (fifth graders through college students) can also be scheduled for the Mock Oral Argument Experience, a 75-minute education program that culminates in the enactment of an oral argument using a hypothetical case.  These groups come to the supreme court from all across the state, especially during the 60-day legislative session.  Most of the young people are on school trips, but the court has noted an increase in the number of youth leadership groups visiting lately; leadership groups recently hosted by the court include Florida 4-H, Girls State, Boys State, Florida Youth Leadership, Electric Co-op Youth Leadership, the Florida House/Page and Messengers Programs, Polk County Youth Leadership, and the PACE Center for Girls Youth Leadership.  All in all, in the 2016 – 17 fiscal year, court staff led 148 Educational Programs/Tours and guided 68 student groups through the Mock Oral Argument Experience; between them, the two programs reached more than 7,500 participants. (This link goes to additional information about tours and education programs at the supreme court.)     

The supreme court is also a popular destination for adult leadership groups of various 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.  Altogether, 252 adults visited with leadership groups during the 2016 – 17 fiscal year.  These groups included Leadership Tallahassee, Leadership Pinellas, Leadership Tampa Bay, Leadership St. Pete, Northwest Regional Leadership, and Polk County Leadership, and several Department of Children and Families leadership groups.  (For more information about educational activities for visitors to the supreme court, please see the Short History of Florida State Courts System Processes, Programs, and Initiatives.) 

Florida Supreme Court Library and Archives

The Florida Supreme Court Library, founded in 1845, is the oldest of Florida’s state-supported libraries.  It was originally established for use by the supreme court and the attorneys who practice before it.  Although that continues to be its primary purpose, it now serves the entire state courts system as well.  Library staff also provide assistance to other law libraries, law firms, and state agencies, and the library is open to the public: people can do legal or historical research there, and school, family, and adult groups are invited to ponder the treasures in the rare book room and admire the archival wonders on display in the reading room.  (This link goes to the library webpage.)

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 the 2016 – 17 fiscal year, the library archivist completed inventorying the papers of former Justice James Alderman (on the bench from 1978 – 85); the justice’s speeches and his personal and administrative work papers are now available to researchers.  In addition, when he retired, Justice James E.C. Perry (on the bench from 2009 – 16) donated 12 cubic feet (approximately eight boxes) of his professional correspondence, notebooks, and work papers to the library; the archivist has begun the process of cataloging these papers.  To slow down the deterioration of the papers preserved in the archives, the archivist also oversaw the rehousing, into acid-free folders, of the collections of Justices Ben Overton, Gerald Kogan, Major Harding, and Stephen Grimes and of the papers of the Racial and Ethnic Bias Study Commission (1989 – 91).  Further, archives and library staff composed short biographies of every justice who has served on the bench, from 1946 to the present; these biographies are now available online.  Moreover, the archivist contributed historic court photos and historical information to the supreme court’s Public Information Office, which has been seeking to expand its outreach to the public with regular posts, on Facebook and other social media, on court topics of historical significance.

And, finally, in the supreme court rotunda, library staff prepared an exhibit of books and documents of the Bourbon Era of Florida history (1887 – 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, which was one of the library’s Evolution of Justice in Florida exhibits, contained a number of original items that date back to this era.  (The Evolution of Justice in Florida project, conceived in 2002 by then Chief Justice Harry Anstead and later sustained by then Chief Justice Barbara J. Pariente, was designed to “educate the public about the history of our state’s judiciary and to strengthen confidence in Florida’s Courts System.”  This link goes to the Evolution of Justice booklet that grew out of the project.)  (More information about the Florida Supreme Court Library can be found in the Short History of Florida State Courts System Processes, Programs, and Initiatives.)

Court Publications

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.  In addition, several times a year, the unit publishes the Full Court Press, the official newsletter of the state courts system, which aims 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.

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