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Court News - 2017

The Office of the State Courts Administrator (OSCA) provides information and brief write-ups about newsworthy events happening in and around the Florida court system. 


New Supreme Court Justice saw life through the eyes of a Honduran child

By Craig Waters, Florida Supreme Court Public Information Office

Alan Lawson and his wife Julie both grew up in families that believed in service to others, and so it was only natural for them to volunteer when they learned of a group doing health-related work in Central America called SMART – Surgical & Medical Assistance Relief Teams.That was how they came to the slums of Honduras in 1999 and met a beautiful 12-year-old child named Denia Osorto Corrales. She had an endless smile, full dark eyes, long black hair – and a damaged heart that soon could put her in the grave.

“We just couldn’t walk away from her without at least trying to help,” said Lawson, 55, who will be sworn as Florida’s 86th Supreme Court Justice Wednesday in Tallahassee. “We knew that God put her in out path for a reason.”

Lawson and Corrales families

Lawson said he and his wife began their work with Denia on the spot, by securing her medical records. Immediately upon returning to Orlando they arranged to bring her to their home for open-heart surgery at the Arnold Palmer Children’s Hospital. And when complications arose, they arranged for her return for a second surgery and follow-up care. She lived with the Lawson family for almost a year.
When they returned Denia to Honduras, they travelled with a team of family members, church members and other friends who worked together to move the family – seven siblings, parents and grandparents – from a two-room structure in a remote area with no electricity or running water into a home purchased with help from Make-a-Wish Foundation, and others. The team, which included Lawson’s parents, in-laws and children, personally rehabilitated the home on that trip.

The Lawsons have continued to travel annually to Honduras to volunteer there and visit with “the family.” Friends who were on the second trip in 2000 have sponsored Denia’s older brother through medical school at the National University of Honduras. The Lawsons are sponsoring another brother who is studying civil engineering at Honduras’ Catholic University. The goal is to increase the entire family’s self-sufficiency.

“Julie and I found that our lives were so greatly enriched by the presence of the Corrales family,” said Lawson. “Seeing life through their eyes, and seeing their family tragedy turn into a story of hope and promise was the most joyful experience I can recall, other than the birth of our children. We have come to love their family as much as we love our own.”

Lawson will take the oath of office at the Florida Supreme Court Building on Wednesday, April 5 at 3:00 p.m. At the ceremony, Gov. Rick Scott will present Lawson’s written credentials to Chief Justice Jorge Labarga, signifying the point in time when Lawson formally moves into the judicial branch as the state’s newest Justice.

More than 70 judges from around the state have committed to attend the event and take part in a Judicial Processional – formally entering the courtroom in Tallahassee wearing their black robes after a public introduction by the Supreme Court marshal.

Wednesday’s ceremony is open to the public, although overflow crowds already are expected. The event will be streamed live by the Florida Channel and from the Court’s own Gavel to Gavel video portal located at: http://wfsu.org/gavel2gavel/

Lawson is a native of Lakeland and grew up in Tallahassee. He and his wife later moved to the Orlando area, where Lawson served as a trial judge. More recently he was chief judge of the Fifth District Court of Appeal in Daytona Beach.

Lawson is the 86th Justice named to the Supreme Court since Florida achieved statehood in 1845.

Please follow this link to the original Supreme Court Press Release.
 

The Justice Teaching Institute: Florida Civics Education Reimagined

By Miranda Nicolosi, intern with the Florida Supreme Court’s Public information Office

The Justice Teaching Institute (JTI) is a competitive and rewarding law-related education program designed, in part, to reduce the civics education deficit in Florida classrooms.  Offered annually, this tremendous resource is funded by The Florida Bar Foundation, sponsored and hosted by the Florida Supreme Court, and coordinated by Ms Annette Boyd Pitts, executive director of the Florida Law Related Education Association.  This program, under the dedicated leadership of Justice R. Fred Lewis and the thoughtful guidance of all the supreme court justices, gives 25 middle and high school teachers from across Florida an opportunity to immerse themselves in the justice system.  These talented educators work alongside the justices in what many of the teachers refer to as “judicial boot camp.”  The curriculum, which reflects a hands-on, case study approach, never fails to leave educators eager to get back to their classrooms to share what they have learned about the complexity and importance of the judicial branch of government.  

The 2017 Justice Teaching Institute was held from Sunday, February 19, through Thursday, February 23.  The day they arrived in Tallahassee, the teachers met with the JTI’s mentor judges, Eighteenth Circuit Judge Kelly McKibben and First Circuit Judge Ross Goodman, and immediately dove into the material.  They set their sights on the week’s goal: to become better educated citizens and to develop the capacity to help their students do the same.  The compact agenda for the week was constructed with this goal in mind.

Monday marked the beginning of three days of justice-led teaching sessions that both tested and expanded the teachers’ knowledge of the third branch of government.  Justice Charles Canady gave an educational presentation on the structure, function, and funding of the state courts system.  Justice Ricky Polston provided the teachers with insight into the differences between state and federal courts.  Justice Lewis introduced cornerstone information relating to the case the teachers would examine as they prepared for the mock oral argument they would be holding.  Chief Justice Jorge Labarga talked about judicial independence and judicial selection.  Justice Barbara Pariente spoke about the role a fair and impartial judiciary plays in modern government and shed light on the “human” side of being a justice.  Justice Peggy Quince introduced useful tactics for creating a compelling oral argument and encouraged the teachers to put these tools to use in their mock trial and in their classrooms.  And to wrap up the interactive JTI experience, Justice Alan Lawson invited the teachers to have some fun and put their thinking caps on in a Florida Constitution Scavenger Hunt.  In addition, staff from the supreme court law library assisted the teachers with their case exploration by providing an introduction to legal research and pertinent terminology; this information would help teachers better argue their case, and it also made them aware of the countless legal research tools they use in the classroom.

The educators had until Wednesday morning to prepare for their mock oral argument, the undeniable highlight of the program.  This year’s case involved Fourth Amendment rights.  The teachers took part in an in-depth study, facilitated by Justice Lewis, of the exclusionary rule and probable cause, and they talked about how new technologies may challenge the traditional understanding of these principles.  The teachers spent a great deal of time absorbing the facts of the law before they analyzed case specifics.  And they came to understand what each of the justices stressed: that the job of a judge is not to “pick sides” based on how they feel about cases but rather to understand the law and to make a decision that aligns with constitutional principles.

The mock oral argument is a moment of high intensity for the teachers; playing the parts of justices and attorneys, they have a chance to showcase everything they learned in the last few days and put ideas and content into action. The JTI fellows worked tirelessly and diligently, utilizing the tools they had been given to create and respond to compelling oral arguments, effectively portraying and expanding on what they were taught.  When given the chance to prove themselves, they exceeded expectations and are sure to bring the same level of dedication to their classrooms.  

Throughout the five-day training, the justices and Ms Annette Boyd Pitts showed their appreciation and respect for teachers and emphasized the importance of providing a quality education for Florida’s young minds.  The teachers left Tallahassee knowing where to find resources for teaching their students about the judicial system in Florida.  Justice Lewis describes the JTI as a resource to teachers, saying “We make information available so teachers can pass it on.  We don’t tell students what to think; we just want to get students thinking.”  To help teachers in this endeavor, the supreme court has an education webpage that offers educational resources such as mock oral argument cases they can use when instructing their students about the judicial branch of government.  (Take this link to the JTI website.) 

The teachers raved about how the justices made such complex material enjoyable and how immensely lucky they felt to have been chosen for JTI.  They especially appreciated the time the justices shared with them: “The individualized attention is pretty amazing!” said Mike Lee, from Sebring High School in Highlands County. They had nothing but praise for the unparalleled value of this experience and the wealth of information they will now be able bring to their students.  

Their first-hand experience has the potential to shape and expand civics education in Florida classrooms for years to come.  And it also has the potential to shape the students sitting in those classrooms for years to come.  This great education for today’s teachers inspires a chain reaction, leading to better-informed citizens, voters, and leaders of tomorrow. 
 

Justice James E. C. Perry Retires from the Supreme Court

By Beth C. Schwartz

James E. C. Perry, a native of New Bern, North Carolina, was appointed as the eighty-fifth justice to the Florida Supreme Court by Governor Charlie Crist and took office on March 11, 2009.  Prior to sitting on the supreme court bench, he served as a circuit judge in Florida’s Eighteenth Judicial Circuit, appointed by Governor Jeb Bush in March 2000; he was the first African-American appointed to the Eighteenth Circuit and was its chief judge from 2003 – 2005. 

The Florida Constitution sets the mandatory retirement age for state judges and justices at 70 years old, the exact date depending on when their seventieth birthday occurs.  Justice Perry reached what is jocularly referred to as “constitutional senility” in 2014.  Because his birthday fell in the second half of his six-year term, he was able to remain on the bench until his term expired.  He retired from the supreme court bench on December 30, 2016.  (For biographical information about Justice Perry, please follow this link.)   

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Nearly eight years have passed since Justice Perry joined the supreme court.  Of the court’s seven justices, he was the last one appointed, so it has been a while since anyone would have had reason to ponder over the kinds of personal qualities that might ease a newly-appointed justice’s transition to the supreme court bench.  Justice Perry’s imminent retirement presented an opportunity to seek his unique perspective on this matter. 

When asked what advice he might impart to a new supreme court appointment, Justice Perry’s first response was an eloquent silence.  Then, after a deep chuckle, he declared, “The problem is that this is unlike any other experience; you can’t really prepare to do this—there’s really no preparation.  What advice would I give a new supreme court justice?  I don’t have a clue!”  But after a brief interval, he offered the following: “Just be honest, have integrity, have a sense of purpose, fairness, and justice.  And remember that you’re dealing with issues that affect everyday life”—a point that he quickly clarified: “Sometimes we can lose sight of the fact that this is not just an academic pursuit, where you go through legal gymnastics and come to a conclusion.  You need to determine how your decisions are going to impact the average man and woman walking around on the street.”

Another expressive pause followed.  But it soon gave way to a bustling, wide-ranging exchange, during which Justice Perry segued seamlessly from stories about some of his most memorable public school teachers and what they taught him, to his recipe for writing clear, meaningful opinions.  During the course of this conversational journey, the justice offered a bounty of aphorisms and common sense advice from which any aspiring or newly-appointed jurist—surely, any human being—might learn a useful thing or two.  Broadly speaking, his insights fell into four overlapping areas: the need to recognize and respect everyone’s humanity; the importance of feeling comfortable in your own skin; the wisdom of fostering collegiality; and the responsibility to communicate plainly and comprehensibly.

Clearly, Justice Perry thinks deeply about “the average man and woman walking around on the street” (he admitted that, before he makes a final decision, one of the questions he asks himself is, “Does this make walking-around sense”?).  For he recognizes that, at heart, “We are all human beings.  We have a sense of humor.  We have pain.  We have suffering….”  This appreciation of the humanity in everyone probably explains why he believes it’s “important for judges to go out and speak to the community.”  He sees these occasions as opportunities to connect with people and help them understand something about the justice system: “For people have no idea what we do and how important it is.  And they are always interested in hearing a judge speak.”  He gets asked to speak at a great many events, and “rather than preparing a speech that the audience might not be interested in,” he invites people to ask him questions—“That becomes my whole presentation.  For they have a lot of questions,” he exclaimed.   He also pointedly avoids using his title when he introduces himself: “I purposefully don’t walk into a room and say, ‘I’m Justice Perry.’  I say, ‘I’m Jim Perry.’”  He knows that his title—which reflects “what I do, not who I am”—is likely to “build a wall between us”; when he presents himself by name rather than title, he hopes to “tear this wall down.”  He noted that the average person does not understand how the courts operate; and, historically, people have had doubts about the efficiency, fairness, and accessibility of the court system.  Thus “It doesn’t bode well for judges to be so mysterious, so unapproachable.”  He wants people to see that “Judges are human beings like everyone else.  The air here is not any more rarefied than the air anyone else breathes.”  And again he distinguished between what he does and who he is: “Take seriously what you do, but not who you are.  I try not to take myself too seriously,” he added with a chuckle. 

When asked to talk a bit about “who he is,” Justice Perry responded, “I’m happy.  I’m at peace with myself.  I don’t talk down to anybody.  I don’t talk up to anybody.  I’m not trying to impress anybody.”  Governor Charlie Crist said that this unassuming manner “really struck” him when the aspiring justice visited the governor’s office to be interviewed for the supreme court vacancy.  The governor described his office as being “big and imposing,” so, upon welcoming his guest, the governor invited him to “Please be comfortable”—to which Justice Perry is said to have responded, “I am the most comfortable man you’re ever going to meet.  I just do what’s right, so I’m never going to be uncomfortable.”  Justice Perry’s disposition to “be at peace” and to “be comfortable” is palpable to anyone who spends any time with him, and it is a quality from which most people would benefit, especially judges.  For, “In this line of work, people often disagree with or disapprove of you,” he warned, “so it’s very important that you don’t disapprove of yourself; you have to be comfortable in your own skin to be comfortable with the criticism.”  He also stressed that “Being a judge is not a popularity contest.  And it shouldn’t be.  You need to be satisfied with who you are.” 

This might be especially true of a supreme court justice, because the seven of them must learn to work efficiently and effectively together as a unit.  Speaking of his colleagues, he said, “My story is different from anybody else’s.  My decisions were honed and influenced by my experiences; they are ‘baked in,’ part of the water the fish swims in.  We all have different stories.”  But, even so, “You can learn to disagree in an agreeable manner.  And that’s what collegiality is really all about,” he emphasized.  “The bottom line is that we are all human beings; we have families, children, health issues….”  He recognizes that “Maybe we won’t change each other’s minds.  But we can respect each other’s opinions.  And like each other as people.”  When asked what he does to help achieve this level of respect and amity, he says, quite simply, “We go to lunch: when you go to lunch, you get to know someone.  And then you can see why they think the way they do.  And they can see why you think the way you do.”  Lunching together is surely a good strategy for building collegiality.  Indeed, he shares his warm collegiality with all the people who work in the supreme court building, speaking kindly with everyone he passes in its halls: “We’re all in the human family,” he remarked: “We have different jobs, different lives.  But it takes a village to raise this democracy we have.”  Ultimately, he sees everyone as working together, doing his or her part to “make things better.”

One of the topics to which Justice Perry circled back the most was communication—specifically, the importance of communicating clearly and understandably.  Regardless of who he’s talking to, or who he’s writing for, he said, “I don’t try to razzle dazzle people with esoteric language.  The goal is to communicate.  It would be like me speaking to you in French when you don’t understand French.  What’s the point?  The whole purpose of communication is to get people to understand what you’re saying.”  This is no less true when he writes opinions: “With all my opinions, in the first 70 words, you understand the pertinent facts, the pros and cons, and the conclusion—in plain, clear language, so that if you don’t want to read any further, you know where I’m going.  The whole reason for writing opinions is to communicate to the judge and the public.  They have a right to know without having to read through 120 pages!”     

Given his dedication to the responsible and straightforward expression and interchange of thoughts and ideas, it should come as no surprise that Justice Perry’s favorite subject in high school was English (especially grammar: he laughed softly upon recalling that one of his teachers spent six weeks on the verb “to be,” and after mentioning that he particularly loved learning how to diagram sentences in fifth grade, he proceeded to diagram a quite complex one in the air with his finger!).  He attributed his passion for strong, unambiguous communication to his having had exceptionally good teachers as a child and young man, noting that “one of the unintended consequences of segregation” was that many African-Americans with masters degrees and even doctorates, because they had limited job opportunities, ended up teaching in the public schools that served minority students.

As the interview wound down, Justice Perry became pensive about the chance-driven journey that led him, against so many odds, to the bench of the Florida Supreme Court: “I always wanted to make a difference.  I had a plan to make things better for the generations that follow me.  But I had no idea how to go about doing it.  And I still don’t understand how it happened.  But I’m just thankful that it did.”

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