Court News - 2015
Judge Steven Leifman, Miami-Dade, Presented with Chief Justice Award for Judicial Excellence
The newly-established Chief Justice Awards for Judicial Excellence recognize one county court judge and one circuit court judge who demonstrate exceptional commitment to the judicial branch and who personify judicial excellence, embodying qualities such as strength of character, integrity, fairness, open-mindedness, knowledge of the law, sound judgment, professional ethics, intellectual courage, compassion, and decisiveness. These prestigious awards are presented by the chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court at the annual education programs for each level of the trial court. At this year’s Conference of County Court Judges of Florida, Chief Justice Labarga presented the 2015 Chief Justice Award for Judicial Excellence to Judge Steven Leifman, Miami-Dade County.
Soon after his appointment to the Miami-Dade County bench in 1995, Judge Leifman discovered that his legal and judicial training left him poorly-prepared for the people with serious and persistent mental illnesses who were re-appearing in his courtroom repeatedly and often. Throughout his two decades on the bench, he has devoted an exceptional amount of time and effort to identifying, promoting, and implementing innovative ways to address this community, state, and national problem. In 2000, for instance, he created the Eleventh Judicial Circuit Mental Health Project, which diverts people with mental illnesses who do not pose significant public safety risks into community-based treatment and support programs; since then, approximately 4,000 people with mental illnesses have been diverted from the Miami-Dade County Jail, and the recidivism rate for people charged with a felony who successfully complete the program is just 6 percent. Judge Leifman has also been involved in developing the country’s largest Crisis Intervention Team Training Program; more than 4,400 law enforcement officers in Miami-Dade County have been trained to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental illnesses and to respond more effectively and appropriately to people in psychiatric crisis. In the last four years, officers with Miami-Dade County and the city of Miami who have been trained in the this program have responded to approximately 35,000 calls: nearly 8,000 people were diverted into community treatment rather than being arrested, and only 85 arrests were made.
Judge Leifman also participated on a national advisory board that developed three benchbooks to assist judges in responding more effectively to defendants with mental illnesses, and he has helped to influence statewide policy through his tireless legislative advocacy. To learn about other ways in which Judge Leifman has worked to reform fundamentally the criminal justice and mental health systems in Miami-Dade County, please follow this link to the press release.
Thanking Jurors for Answering the Call
Chief Judge J. Thomas McGrady, Sixth Judicial Circuit
To the judiciary, May is particularly special, because May is Juror Appreciation Month.
I’d like to use the occasion to thank all those jurors in Pasco and Pinellas counties who have answered the call for jury duty, and who have lived up to their civic responsibilities. Their time, service and sacrifice are greatly appreciated.
We live in the greatest country in the world, with the strongest judicial system. And jurors are the linchpin of our system. As they listen to evidence and hand down guilty or not-guilty verdicts, or decide how much responsibility should be borne by a defendant in a civil suit, they are playing one of the most crucial roles laid out for citizens in the U.S. Constitution, and are ensuring that a trial by one’s peers doesn’t become a thing of the past.
I speak on behalf of all the judges in our judicial circuit when I say we are aware of the inconveniences associated with jury duty and the disruption to jurors’ lives. And we know it’s difficult to carry out some of our orders during trials, such as those instructing jurors not to research a case, to ensure they are basing their decision only on the evidence presented in court. We know it’s not easy. But the importance of the task of a juror in our judicial system cannot be overstated.
While the monetary compensation is low, we think the rewards are high. There is no greater contribution one can make to one’s country, outside of military service. And we hope everyone recognizes, as we do, the sacrifices jurors have made, and the example they have set.
If you happen to be called to serve as a juror, please fulfill the obligation as these citizens have done. That way, our judicial system can remain strong, and the United States can remain the greatest country in the world.
(published in the Tampa Tribune, May 5, 2015)
A Shout-Out to Jurors for Their Service
Chief Judge Frederick J. Lauten, Ninth Judicial Circuit.
In 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower declared May 1 to be Law Day, a day to celebrate and recognize the ideals of equality and justice under the law. This month, as we celebrated Law Day, we also celebrated one of the fundamental features of our legal system, trial by jury.
In recognition of the invaluable role jurors play in the law, I proclaimed this past week as Juror Appreciation Week. The Orange and Osceola county commissions joined in. The judges of the Ninth Judicial Circuit and I extend our deepest thanks to all those who have reported for jury duty. We cannot dispense justice in our courthouse without their participation.
We know that responding to a jury summons and serving on a jury are often inconvenient because jury service takes us away from our important daily responsibilities. We know we are asking citizens to sacrifice by serving as jurors, but we also believe it is one of the highest duties we as citizens of a democratic nation can perform. Our brave men and women in the military have fought and died to protect our freedoms to ensure that we can directly participate in our system of justice.
It is vitally important that we have a diverse, representative, engaged group of citizens deciding disputed issues of fact and rendering verdicts in both criminal and civil trials. Jury service is one of the most direct forms of democracy because it is we the people and not someone we elect deciding the fate of a case.
Along with voting and serving in the military, jury duty is an essential responsibility of American citizenship. Whenever I speak to employers in our circuit, I urge them to pay their employees while they serve as jurors to underscore how important jury service is to our community. It is an example of civic commitment and corporate responsibility to help ensure a free and fair judicial system.
Permit me to extend my deepest appreciation to all the jurors throughout the years who have faithfully reported for jury service. And to those who will be summonsed in the future, I ask that they respond to their summons and participate in jury service. Our system of justice is only as strong and as involved as our citizens choose to be.
We live in a wonderful nation. Citizens make our nation even stronger by performing this important civic responsibility, and the judges of the Ninth Judicial Circuit are grateful for their service.
(published in the Orlando Sentinel, May 10, 2015)
Jury Duty Is Part of the Foundation of Our Democracy
Chief Judge Jeffrey Colbath, Fifteenth Judicial Circuit
May 1 marked the beginning of Juror Appreciation Month. In recognition of the contributions made by the jurors of Palm Beach County, I give my thanks to those who have answered the call for duty.
I understand that it is not always convenient or a welcome duty. But without you, our system of justice would come to a halt. Along with military service, serving as a juror is the highest form of civic responsibility a person can perform.
Our jury system is the foundation of our democracy. Our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents — all the way back nearly 239 years to the birth of our great nation — have been called to courthouses in every county and state across our country to serve as jurors. The essence of jury service is to help resolve disputes by listening to witnesses, reviewing evidence and deciding upon the truth, based on the evidence.
In criminal cases, jurors decide whether people are guilty or not guilty. In civil cases, they decide if fellow citizens are liable or blameless.
Jurors’ decisions may result in a criminal defendant going to prison for decades, or going free. In a civil case, jury decisions can result in millions of dollars being paid to the party harmed.
Without the jury system, disputes would still get resolved. But we might not like the method that could evolve, for example, bureaucrats, behind closed doors, making decisions subject to personal agendas, subject to suspicion, subject to abuse.
With the jury system, not only do our fellow citizens come in and watch the disputes being resolved, but they decide the outcome of those disputes. It is that transparency — and review by peers — that gives our system credibility and stability. By serving as a juror, you are putting one more brick in the stable foundation of our democracy.
We in the court system know that serving as a juror is a sacrifice. Many of you will miss work and not be paid.
However, all of us, whether we recognize it or not, have benefited from others serving as jurors. Their sacrifice has resulted in a more peaceful environment in which to live and prosper.
So when you are called to serve as a juror, instead of thinking about the possible inconvenience of serving, please feel the sense of patriotism of this obligation. Know, too, that jurors are highly respected by the judges, officers of the court and court personnel. All of us — your friends, neighbors and strangers — are counting on you to take your turn in continuing this great tradition of jury service.
(published in the Palm Beach Post, May 2, 2015)
Jury Duty Is a Right
Chief Judge John M. Harris, Eighteenth Judicial Circuit
May is designated “Juror Appreciation Month” in Florida. This gives all of us an opportunity to recognize and to celebrate the thousands of Floridians who serve as jurors each year — and to encourage others to answer the call to jury service.
During my term as chief judge, nearly 60,000 of our friends and neighbors in Brevard County have reported for jury duty, and for this remarkable service, I am truly grateful. Without them, our system of civil and criminal justice would come grinding to a halt.
Sadly, not everyone who is called to jury service appreciates its importance. Trial by jury is a fundamental right guaranteed by the United States and Florida Constitutions. Thomas Jefferson once referred to trial by jury as “the only anchor yet imagined by man by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.”
Serving on a jury is truly an awesome responsibility, where everyday citizens are asked to directly participate in our government and in administering justice for their neighbors. An explanation of the history of the right to trial by jury in America and of the countless sacrifices made to ensure us that right is beyond the scope of this column, yet it would all be for nothing if the people were unwilling to play their vital role in the system.
That is why, as a trial court judge, it is so disconcerting to hear people complain when they are called to serve as jurors and to see them try so desperately to avoid their obligation. Regrettably, seeking to avoid jury service is symptomatic of society’s chronic ambivalence when it comes to participating in our government.
During my 13 years as a judge in Brevard, it has been my experience that most who seek to avoid jury duty do so with no firsthand knowledge of the nature of jury service, no appreciation of the critical role that juries play in our justice system, and no understanding of the incredible opportunity it can be to serve as a juror.
Jurors are full partners in court proceedings. They help resolve disputes by listening to witnesses, reviewing evidence and deciding the facts of the case. In criminal cases, jurors — not judges — determine whether the government has proven its charges against a defendant. In civil cases, again jurors — not judges — decide whether a party seeking damages deserves an award.
There are no special skills or legal knowledge required to be a good juror — only an open mind and a readiness to work with other jurors to make decisions. In this way, jury service is truly the cornerstone of our system of justice.
Trial by jury is a right guaranteed not only to the parties in the trial, it is a right guaranteed to those called to serve. In other words, jury service should not be seen as a burden or an inconvenience, but rather as every citizen’s absolute right to participate directly in our democracy.
In Florida, this right is statutorily protected and is actually unlawful for an employer to in any way punish an employee as a result of jury service. Employers who do so are subject to civil suit in which damages are recoverable — damages that would be determined, appropriately enough, by a jury. In fact, even threatening to dismiss an employee can be deemed contempt of court and punished accordingly.
This simply shows that the court is prepared to do whatever necessary to encourage, welcome and protect all those who are called for jury service. In the 18th Circuit and across Florida, jurors are highly respected by the judges and all court staff. In a continuing effort to make the process as juror-friendly as possible, judges will meet with jurors after the trial to listen to their concerns and suggestions for the future. When you serve, you will be treated with the respect and kindness you deserve.
Again, to those of you who have already responded to the call for jury service, the judges of the 18th Judicial Circuit would like to extend our deepest thanks. It is unquestionably your wisdom and your experiences that bring fairness and justice to our courtrooms.
And to those of you who will receive a jury summons in the future, I hope you will now see it as the tremendous opportunity and privilege that it truly is.
I look forward to seeing you.
(published in Florida Today, May 4, 2015)
Portraits Presentation Ceremony
By Beth C. Schwartz
In the Supreme Court Courtroom on Thursday, April 9, Chief Justice Labarga welcomed a lively audience of family, friends, and colleagues to the Portraits Presentation Ceremony, at which the official oil paintings of the four most recently-appointed justices—Justices Charles T. Canady, Ricky Polston, Jorge Labarga, and James E.C. Perry—were unveiled.
These portraits, which were commissioned by the Florida Supreme Court Historical Society, have now joined the paintings of the other three sitting justices—Justices Barbara J. Pariente, R. Fred Lewis, and Peggy A. Quince—in the Lawyer’s Lounge, just off the Supreme Court Building rotunda. There each portrait will remain—until the justice it reflects retires, at which point, his or her portrait will be moved into the courtroom to join the likenesses of other former justices.
With the addition of these new portraits, the Supreme Court of Florida Portrait Gallery, which is open to the public, is now complete, boasting images of all 85 justices going back to 1846, when Florida’s first justice was appointed. The Portrait Gallery dates from the early twentieth century, when the court started to collect and commission oil paintings of its former justices; not until the 1980s were portrayals of all the former justices obtained. When guests to the Supreme Court Building visit the courtroom, they can view the likenesses of the twentieth and twenty-first century justices; and when they stroll down the adjoining hallway, they can examine the portrayals of the nineteenth century justices.
Each one of these portraits is stately and compelling—but these 85 images are far more than just embellishments to the stately building. Indeed, taken together, these paintings reflect some of the momentous ways in which the norms, attitudes, and laws in Florida have changed and developed since admission to the Union was granted in 1845.
As Chief Justice Labarga explained, “One of the ways a government body like the Florida Supreme Court writes its history is through the stories of the actual women and men who sat here as judges. When the public comes here to watch a case or tour the building, they see the faces of these judges staring down from the walls. And these faces give them a glimpse into what life was like in times past. Anyone can look at the portraits and imagine the world in which each of these justices lived and how those worlds have changed in later times. They can see the faces of plantation owners who lived before the Civil War. And a short distance away, they can see the face of the first African-American who joined this court as one of its members. Those two images convey so much about what has happened in Florida law. And it is through these images that we tell the story of the Florida Supreme Court.”
Indeed, a considerable part of the hour-long ceremony was dedicated to re-telling the story of the court. After the chief justice’s opening remarks, he introduced the portrait artists: Mr. Jeff Bass, who painted Justices Canady, Labarga, and Perry; and Ms Darlene Williams, who painted Justice Polston. Following that were welcomes from Sylvia H. Walbolt, president of the Florida Supreme Court Historical Society; Gregory W. Coleman, president of The Florida Bar; and Kelly A. O’Keefe, the historical society’s first vice president and portrait program chair. But then, audience members were treated to some vibrantly-told tales of Florida history that keenly illustrated how much Florida has evolved over the years. In a talk called “From Separate to Equal,” former Justice Joseph W. Hatchett focused on the travails of Virgil Hawkins, a black man who waged a 28-year battle to practice law in Florida and helped break the color barrier at the University of Florida Law School. Then, speaking on “When Article V Came Up to Date,” former Justice Stephen H. Grimes reminded listeners of the slow and deliberate efforts to modernize Florida’s court system. Finally, no supreme court history lesson could be complete without mention of Election 2000, and former Justice Major B. Harding shared some fascinating details and anecdotes about that great “civics lesson,” which made so many feel “proud to be an American.”
After the former justices finished speaking about these consequential moments in Florida and Florida Supreme Court history, Chief Justice Labarga added, “Today, we celebrate that history with the addition of these four portraits to our gallery. We also celebrate the lessons learned from that history and employ those lessons as we move forward. If anything,” he stressed, “the lessons taught by our history are that policies of exclusion do not work. Florida’s long story demonstrates that, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. The best future is one where all have equal access to justice. Access to justice must be protected and broadened.” In his closing words, he reminded listeners that he established the Commission on Access to Civil Justice efforts to expand access to justice, saying, “It is my hope, through this commission, to push us farther along the arc of justice to a place where our civil courts are equally available to all of our people.”
Access to Civil Justice Commission Has Its First Meeting
by Beth Schwartz
"The courts shall be open to every person for redress of any injury, and justice shall be administered without sale, denial or delay.” With these words, the Florida Constitution is construed to enshrine the right to access to justice for all Floridians. But in the current environment—a time of profound social, economic, political, and technological changes, in a world regulated by increasingly complex and interdependent laws and statutes—to have meaningful access to justice, one often must have help navigating the legal system.
One of the most effective ways to navigate the legal system is to engage legal representation. In criminal cases, defendants are entitled to an attorney, and the state must provide one if defendants can’t afford one. However, in most civil cases (e.g., domestic violence and many other family law matters, home ownership, landlord-tenant disputes, consumer issues, and matters relating to veteran’s benefits, healthcare, and other governmental services), an attorney is not provided; litigants either must pay for one themselves (which is not always an option, as attorney fees in Florida run upwards of $250 per hour), or they must represent themselves.
In the past, disadvantaged, low-income, and moderate-income individuals facing civil matters could apply for free or low-cost legal help via legal aid services. But, over the last few years, federal and state funding for legal aid services has declined considerably, and the Florida Interest on Trust Accounts Program, which also provides funds in support of civil legal assistance for the poor, has experienced sharply reduced revenue as a result of historic low interest rates. Consequently, of the 3 million Floridians who live with incomes below the federal poverty guidelines, only a small percentage of those who need civil legal assistance are able to obtain it (it is estimated that less than 10 percent of the legal needs of low-income Floridians are being met). What’s more, many middle-class Floridians are also effectively excluded from access to civil justice because they earn too much to be eligible for legal aid services (to qualify, an individual may make no more than $14,588 annually, and the household income of a family of four may not exceed $29,813)—yet they do not earn enough to be able to afford a lawyer.
For many Floridians, then, obtaining legal representation for civil matters is often not feasible. In addition, while Florida’s state courts have been working to develop forms, instructions, and other self-help resources, and while other entities in the Florida justice system have tried, within the scope of their authority, to improve the availability and delivery of legal services, disadvantaged, low-income, and moderate-income Floridians still encounter obstacles when seeking meaningful and informed access to the civil justice system.
Clearly, ensuring people’s access to civil justice presents a critical challenge for the state—and it is a problem that deeply concerns Chief Justice Labarga. At his passing of the gavel ceremony on June 30, 2014, the new chief justice spoke fervently about this issue and proclaimed that one of the top priorities of his two-year administration would be Access to Justice for all Floridians. Although the dwindling funding for legal aid services brought this crisis to the forefront, the chief justice emphasizes that access to civil justice is a societal concern and that the solutions require a broad, holistic approach that depends on all segments of society, not just its attorneys and lawmakers.
At a ceremony in the Florida Supreme Court rotunda on November 24, 2014, Chief Justice Labarga signed an administrative order creating the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice, a body designed to “bring together the three branches of government, the Bar, civil legal aid providers, the business community, and other well-known stakeholders in a coordinated effort to identify and remove these economic barriers to civil justice.” Urging the 27-member commission to “consider Florida’s legal assistance delivery system as a whole,” the administrative order directs members to “consider and evaluate components of a continuum of services for the unrepresented, taking into account consumer needs and preferences.” Among the components suggested are “interactive forms; unbundled legal services; the involvement of court, law, and public libraries; and other innovations and alternatives.” The order also bids the commission to “examine ways to leverage technology in expanding access to civil justice for disadvantaged, low income, and moderate income Floridians.” (Take this link to the website of the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice.)
The commission had its inaugural meeting in Tallahassee on Friday, January 16. After warmly welcoming the members, Chief Justice Labarga thanked them for their “commitment to working together to develop strategies for overcoming the impediments that many of our fellow Floridians face when seeking access to civil justice.” And, looking around the room, he called attention to “the remarkable skills and backgrounds and knowledge that commission members are bringing to this important endeavor” and noted that “This assemblage of leaders from across our great state offers a diversity of perspectives and expertise that will enable the commission to meet its overall goals and objectives.”
Fortunately, Florida will not have to “reinvent the wheel” in order to devise strategies for eliminating barriers to civil justice, for, as the chief justice emphasized, 32 other states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, already have Access to Justice Commissions (the first commission in the US was established in 1994, in Washington State)—so Florida is in the enviable position of being able to examine what has worked in other states and to adapt these solutions to fit Florida’s unique needs and circumstances. Vividly amplifying this point was the keynote speaker, The Honorable Nathan Hecht, chief justice of the Supreme Court of Texas, who has played a major role in the access to justice efforts in his home state (in 2001, Texas established what has become one of the leading Access to Justice Commissions in the nation).
In addition to the keynote address, commission members were treated to a presentation on the history and role of Access to Justice Commissions, an overview of the need for such a commission in Florida, and a facilitated panel session that focused on the obstacles faced by those seeking help, the most requested areas of need, and the challenges to the justice system in responding to these needs. In the last segment of the meeting, Chief Justice Labarga announced the creation of five subcommittees (Outreach, Access to and the Delivery of Legal Services, Continuum of Services, Technology, and Funding) and named their charges and their members. He then reminded members that the commission will submit an interim report to the supreme court by October 1, 2015, and a final report and recommendations by June 30, 2016.
Thanking commission members once again for their participation in this far-reaching undertaking, the chief justice brought the meeting to a close, saying, “The commission’s success will be accomplished through our collective dedication and each member’s personal commitment to ensuring meaningful and informed access to civil justice for all Floridians. Our fellow Floridians are counting on us, and I am confident we are up to the challenge.” The full commission will meet again on Friday, May 15, in Tampa. (To watch the video of the first meeting, follow this link.)