2017 Court News Events

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. 

News & Initiatives

Prudential Productivity Awards recognize courts efforts

Florida courts personnel are again being recognized for their great work, serving the mission of the State Courts System and the people of Florida.

Winners of 2017 Prudential Productivity Awards will be honored in June.

Since 1989, the awards program has recognized and rewarded state employees and work units whose work significantly increases productivity and promotes innovation to improve the delivery of state services and save money for Florida taxpayers and businesses.

Innovative and cost-saving efforts were honored, including:

  • Chief Judge Jeffrey Colbath, Judge Leonard Hanser, Michelle Spangenberg, Louis Tomeo, Adrienne Ellis, Daniel Eisenger, and Stewart Saalfield, of the 15th Judicial Circuit created a cost-containing diversionary program to assist adults and juveniles arrested for driving with a suspended license. The program aims to keep violators out of jail, help people get their driver license and frees up law enforcement resources for other purposes. -- Read more about suspended license program below --
  • Magistrate Judette Fanelli, Daniel Lieberman, Kathleen Clendining, Kathleen Alexis, Mary Quinlan, Renee Rattray, and Heather Burr-Shulman, from the 15th Judicial Circuit created a first-of-its-kind Therapeutic Court to help children achieve permanency and stability. The problem-solving court focuses on children in dependency proceedings because they have been abused, abandoned or neglected and gone through extensive trauma. A team approach gives more focused attention to cases that involve intense therapeutic monitoring. There have been 31 children included in Therapeutic Court and 10 have been adopted or places with a family member to provided permanency. -- Read more about the Therapeutic Court below --
  • Judge John Kastrenakes, Judge Laura Johnson, Judge Ted Booras, Clerk Sharon Bock, State Attorney Dave Aronberg, Public Defender Carey Haughwout, and Lt. Talal Masri, of Palm Beach County coordinated Operation Fresh Start to offer defendants with nonviolent misdemeanor and criminal traffic warrants an opportunity to resolve them without jail time. The program resulted in the recall of 379 bench warrants and the reinstatement or clearing of 160 driver licenses. More than $20,000 in fines and fees were collected and 96 payment plans were set up.  
  • Tom Genung, trial court administrator in the 19th Judicial Circuit, and the Shared Remote Interpreting Workgroup improved access to qualified interpreter services. With the establishment of a statewide pool, interpreter resources are shared to leverage the use of existing qualified resources. -- Read more about the technology awards below --
  • Fred Buhl, court technology officer in the Eighth Judicial Circuit, led the Shared Remote Court Interpreting Project as well as Integrated Case Management Solution, Both began in Gainesville and the Eighth Circuit and have expanded throughout the state. OpenCourt is used in more than 200 courtrooms and hearing rooms while ICMS is installed in 23 counties. Both are cost-effective options reducing the need for outside vendors. -- Read more about the technology awards below --
  • The Office of Court Improvement increased learning opportunities for Florida’s family court judges while also reducing costs to taxpayers by offering a variety of cost-saving training and technical assistance methods: interactive, web-based publications; multidisciplinary, blended funding training events; distance learning courses; and, regional and local trainings. 
    -- Read more about the learning opportunities for judges below --
  • The Office of Court Improvement within the Office of State Courts Administrator, working with Florida State University, initiated an efficient and effective approach called Early Childhood Court that has resulted in substantial savings to taxpayers by educating judges on trauma, linking the courts with fast-tracked therapeutic services and gathering data documenting improved child and family outcomes in 17 jurisdictions across Florida.  -- Read more about the Early Childhood Court award below --

Read about the previous 2013 award winners and the 2014 award winners.

(posted May 2017)  /  Return to top of page

Early Childhood Court: Florida State University and OSCA’s Office of Court Improvement

(award recipients are OCI staff Sandra Neidert, John Couch, Leigh Merritt, David O’Kane, and George Roberts, and FSU’s Dr. Mimi Graham, director of the Center for Prevention and Early Intervention Policy)

Early Childhood Court grew out of a concern about a pattern that was becoming increasingly evident to judges on the family court bench.  Called the multigenerational transmission of trauma and maltreatment, this pattern unfolds as follows: children who are maltreated often end up suffering a host of developmental issues (e.g., cognitive problems, speech delays, health problems, motor delays, and mental health problems); if the underlying factors are not addressed, the effects worsen over time, and the child appearing in dependency court today is likely to end up in delinquency court years later—and, later still, in court again, facing, perhaps, a domestic violence injunction or a paternity matter. 

In 2013, the Florida State University Center for Prevention and Early Intervention Policy and the Office of Court Improvement formed a partnership to address this pattern.  Later that year, using a small portion of a grant to fund trauma informed systems, they established, and piloted in two jurisdictions, an Early Childhood Court: a specialized problem-solving docket that focuses on cases involving children ages zero to three who have been abused, abandoned, or neglected.  In each of these dockets, members of an Early Childhood Court Team—comprising judges, case workers, attorneys, infant mental health clinicians, and parent and community organizations—worked together to identify and expand evidence-based services for, and to prevent the further traumatization of, young children.  Their goals were to improve child safety and well-being; heal trauma and repair the parent-child relationship; expedite permanency; and stop the intergenerational cycle of abuse/neglect/violence.   

This initial seed funding deepened the cross-agency work, and, since then, the two pilot court teams have expanded to 18 Early Childhood Court Teams that have thus far served more than 300 young children and their families and have “resulted in substantial savings to taxpayers by educating judges on trauma, linking the courts with fast tracked therapeutic services and gathering data documenting improved child and family outcomes.”

Increased Learning Opportunities for Florida’s Family Court Judges:  OSCA’s Office of Court Improvement

(award recipients are Office of Court Improvement staff)

The judicial branch is committed to maintaining a professional, ethical, and skilled judiciary and workforce; indeed, among the goals of the long-range plan are to “provide timely education and training to judges and court employees to ensure high-level performance” and to “develop technology-based approaches to complement existing education programs for judges and court employees.”  Taking these goals very seriously, OSCA’s Office of Court Improvement has worked hard to develop high-quality education and training opportunities for the people who work in Florida’s family courts, making efficient and effective use of limited funding and staff resources.  The office’s success was recently rewarded with a Prudential Productivity Award.

The Office of Court Improvement regularly develops interactive, web-based publications for family court judges and court personnel, e.g., the Dependency Benchbook, the Delinquency Benchbook, the Child Support Benchbook, and Domestic Violence Benchbook, and the Family Court Tool Kits.  The office also publishes a monthly electronic family court newsletter, emailed to more than 800 judges and court staff, about the latest innovations and initiatives.  

In addition, the office facilitates a host of distance learning courses, including webinars and videos for judges hearing delinquency cases and judges hearing domestic violence cases; it also coordinates Ask the Expert webinars for family court judges.  And it developed an online virtual court to assist in training judges who are newly appointed to hearing domestic violence injunctions. 

To curb costs associated with traveling to statewide training events, the Office of Court Improvement, through its Florida Institute on Interpersonal Violence, has also facilitated regional and local trainings.  Moreover, staff developed a curriculum package for a course on Moving Toward a Trauma-Responsive Court—complete with logistics preparation tips, a list of session supplies, sessions materials, and a PowerPoint presentation—for circuits to use at the local level.  This interactive workshop was released in November 2016, and several circuits have already offered it.  Furthermore, the office regularly leverages a variety of federal funding sources to coordinate statewide, multidisciplinary, blended funding training events. 

As a result of all these initiatives, the Office of Court Improvement has trained more while spending less.  In addition to saving taxpayer dollars, these initiatives, by increasing the knowledge, skills, and abilities of Florida’s judiciary, have resulted in improved judicial decision-making and ultimately improved outcomes for children and families in court. 

15th Judicial Circuit team creates Therapeutic Court for better results

A team of people in the 15th Judicial Circuit have been recognized for the success of an innovative, compassionate approach to difficult challenges.

The Therapeutic Court is a first-in-the-nation specialty court using a team approach to foster permanency and stability for children with clinical needs. Children have been helped with more intense, more frequent judicial oversight of appropriate services, review of psychotropic medication, and permanent placement.  A majority of the children in the court have achieved mental health stability and/or permanency. 

Magistrate Judette Fanelli presides over judicial reviews for children in the dependency system.  She continually saw children in crisis with extensive trauma histories and mental health issues. The children were on psychotropic medications, their parents’ rights were terminated, and they were languishing in the system.  These children had numerous placement changes, large numbers of psychotropic medications prescribed, and often were considered “not adoptable.” It was apparent these children needed more frequent judicial oversight with a support team to help them reach stability and ultimately a permanent placement. 

The Therapeutic Court focuses on the victims – the children who are subject to a dependency proceeding because they have been abused, abandoned, and/or neglected.  The children, through no fault of their own, have endured extensive trauma, which results in large psychotropic medication use, therapeutic placements, and difficulty in finding adoptive placements. Therapeutic Court is premised upon frequent judicial oversight and the creation of a non-adversarial courtroom atmosphere where the Therapeutic Court team works together to ensure that the child receives the most appropriate treatment as well as continuing education for the team members on issues related to the therapeutic needs of dependent children.

In November 2016, when the Davis Productivity application was submitted, the Therapeutic Court team had worked with 27 children (the Court has now worked with 31 children).  Twenty four of these children’s parents’ rights were terminated.  Therapeutic Court children had been in the dependency system for an average of four years. Since entering the Therapeutic Court, children participants have shown signification reduction in placement changes, school changes, and number of psychotropic medications.  Ten children have been adopted or placed with a family member through permanent guardianship, thereby achieving permanency and saving the state thousands of dollars in associated placement and care costs.  The estimated cost savings in 2016, as a result of adoption or permanent placement was $109,823.

(posted May 2017)  /  Return to top of page

Florida Excellence in Technology Awards presented to courts employees, teams

People and teams working for Florida’s courts are being recognized for their smart work to deliver justice effectively.

Pictured are Fred Buhl and Patty Harris, senior court operations consultant in Court Services for the Office of State Courts Administrator and member of the workgroup.Pictured are Fred Buhl and Patty Harris, senior court operations consultant in Court Services for the Office of State Courts Administrator and member of the workgroup.

An initiative to improve service and contain costs will be recognized by the Agency for State Technology at the Florida Digital Government Summit when the Shared Remote Court Interpreting Workgroup, chaired by 19th Judicial Circuit Trial Court Administrator Tom Genung, is presented the Florida Excellence in Technology Award.

Faced with a shortage of available qualified court interpreters, the workgroup developed a solution to allow courts to use innovative technology to access court interpreters over the statewide network, providing litigants with limited ability to communicate in English access to qualified interpreters over a much broader geographical area. 

Shared use of remote interpreting services allows courts to greatly improve interpreter services through enhanced technological communications, while also wisely using state resources.

Fred Buhl, court technology officer for the Eighth Judicial Circuit, will be recognized for continually going above and beyond to provide invaluable benefits for the judicial branch and the people it serves.

Buhl manages and coordinates the digital court reporting initiative called OpenCourt as well as the Integrated Case Management Solution, or ICMS. Both begin in Gainesville and the Eighth Circuit and have expanded throughout the state.

OpenCourt is used in more than 200 courtrooms and hearing rooms while ICMS is installed in 23 counties.

Both of these technologies are essential elements of courts’ due-process functions and, further, are cost-effective options reducing the need for outside vendors. Buhl’s skills and foresight mean the people working in many Florida courts can do their jobs more effectively. He has done so with open-source technology that means startup costs are greatly reduced along with ongoing licensing expenses.

(posted May 2017)  /  Return to top of page

Program saves money and improves outcomes for driving with a suspended license

Judges, court operations personnel, County Clerk staff, and attorneys in the State Attorney Office and Public Defenders Office in the 15th Judicial Circuit were recognized with a Prudential Productivity Award for an effective program to reduce the public and private costs of prosecuting driving with a suspended license violations.

In Palm Beach County there are on average 1,106 arrests annually for driving with a suspended license. After reviewing this data, Chief Judge Jeffrey Colbath determined the need to create the DUS Committee (Driving under suspended license), to set up a protocol aimed at assisting   these individuals, both juveniles and adults. A diversionary program was developed, designed to keep individuals out of jail, assist them with obtaining their driver licenses, and free up law enforcement resources.

The key to this specialized DUS program is it allows individuals to enter into a deferred prosecution agreement with specific, defined requirements for regaining their Florida Driver’s License. Indigent defendants are required to perform community service in lieu of paying outstanding fines. Those in compliance with the agreement, who have has not committed new criminal law violations, and who have  obtained a valid driver license, the State Attorney will nolle prosse the case.

A study by Florida Taxwatch Center for Smart Justice titled: Expansion of Civil Citation Programs Statewide Would Save Taxpayers Tens of Millions of Dollars and Improve Public Safety estimated the range of $1,467 to $4,614 in savings for each civil citation issued. Using this methodology and the lowest range of potential savings, the cost savings as a result of this program and the 334 civil citations issues means an estimated total cost savings of $489,978.

Chief Judge Jeffrey Colbath, Judge Leonard Hanser, Michelle Spangenberg, Louis Tomeo, Adrienne Ellis, Daniel Eisinger, and Stewart Saalfield, of the 15th Judicial Circuit were those named in the award. 

(posted May 2017)  /  Return to top of page

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 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.”awson 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:

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.

(posted April 2017)  /  Return to top of page

Human Trafficking: The Eleventh Circuit's Specialty Court

By Beth Schwartz

The Facts

Often referred to as a form of modern-day slavery, human trafficking, which is criminalized under both federal and Florida law, is generally defined as the transporting, soliciting, recruiting, harboring, providing, or obtaining of another person for transport, for the purposes of forced labor, domestic servitude, or sexual exploitation, using force, fraud, and/or coercion (e.g., violence, threats, blackmail, false promises, deception, manipulation, debt bondage).  Human trafficking crosses all social, ethnic, racial, and gender lines: traffickers prey on people of all ages, educational levels, nationalities, and abilities, and victims include illegal immigrants, legal immigrants, and even US citizens.  Eighty percent of victims are women and children (US Department of State).  Although human trafficking is frequently seen in the sex trade industry, human trafficking victims are also seen in industries associated with agriculture, factories and sweatshops, construction, day labor, commercial cleaning, tourism and hospitality, domestic service, health and elder care, child care, salon services, and door-to-door sales, as well as in many other informal and largely unregulated labor sectors (Florida Statewide Council on Human Trafficking).  

The National Human Trafficking Resource Center estimates that traffickers exploit 20.9 million victims across the globe, with an estimated 1.5 million victims in North America, the European Union, and other developed economies combined.  Even though people are growing increasingly cognizant of this crime, human trafficking continues to be underreported due to its covert nature, misconceptions about its definition, and an inability to recognize its signs.

Human Trafficking in Florida

Human trafficking is metastasizing in Florida.  Indeed, human trafficking experts declare that Florida is one of the most active states in the US for traffickers: according to the 2015 National Human Trafficking Resource Center Statistical Overview, in calls made to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, Florida ranked third, behind New York and Texas.  Law enforcement officials speculate that Florida has become a hub for human trafficking because it is a popular destination for transients, runaways, migrant workers, and tourists (labor trafficking is ubiquitous at restaurants, country clubs, and hotels, for example) as well as being a locus for organized crime.

Since 2004, a wide range of public and private entities, both statewide and local, have dedicated themselves to raising awareness about and supporting the victims of human trafficking in Florida.  Among the most prominent are the Department of Children and Families, the Department of Juvenile Justice, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, several statewide task forces and councils established by the legislature and the attorney general’s office, the Florida Coalition Against Human Trafficking, the Florida State University Center for the Advancement of Human Rights, and the Florida Medical Association.  Collectively, these entities have performed groundbreaking victim-based research assessments of human trafficking; developed a statewide strategic plan on human trafficking; assisted with drafting Florida’s anti-trafficking laws; developed human trafficking curricula and conducted trainings for law enforcement, child protective investigators, service providers, medical practitioners, and other groups that are well-positioned to identify and aid human trafficking victims; provided outreach to and services for victims; and crafted recommendations for more effectively combating trafficking crimes and caring for its victims.        

Florida’s courts have also been playing an active role: the courts see this as an important access to justice and administration of justice matter because courts are uniquely situated to convene and coordinate the stakeholder groups that have to address the issues related to human trafficking that surface in the judicial process.  For judges and court personnel, numerous human trafficking trainings, both in-person events and webinars, have been offered, and others are currently being planned.  In addition, OSCA produced and regularly updates a Human Trafficking Overview that details the relevant federal and Florida law regarding human trafficking cases, offers tips to help judges recognize these types of cases, outlines steps to follow if a human trafficking victim appears in court, and provides lists of useful information (e.g., remedies available for victims, the service needs of child victims, and resources for those seeking additional information). Go to OSCA's Human Trafficking web page.

The Eleventh Circuit’s Human Trafficking Specialty Court

Judge Maria Sampedro-Iglesia, associate administrative judge of the Eleventh Judicial Circuit Juvenile Division, presides over the recently launched human trafficking court, called GRACE Court (Growth Renewed through Acceptance, Change and Empowerment Court). Judge Maria Sampedro-Iglesia, associate administrative judge of the Eleventh Judicial Circuit Juvenile Division, presides over the recently launched human trafficking court, called GRACE Court (Growth Renewed through Acceptance, Change and Empowerment Court).

Of particular note is the work of the Eleventh Circuit, which has taken a vigorously proactive stance regarding the youngest casualties of human trafficking.  Acknowledging that Miami, because of its geographic location, is “one of the leaders in this crime,” the circuit, through an administrative order issued by Chief Judge Bertila Soto In March 2015, established a Human Trafficking Court, designed “to serve young victims of human trafficking who entered the court system under a Chapter 39 Petition and/or a delinquency petition filed under Statute 985.”  According to the circuit’s Protocol for Human Trafficking Cases in the 11th Judicial Circuit Court, the mission of this specialty court, which officially launched earlier this year, is to “provide victims with comprehensive services and support in order to recover from the life they have been exposed to, have a successful transition to independence, and begin to lead a healthy life, physically, mentally and emotionally.”  The protocol adds, “It is hoped that the services and support will also reduce any further victimization or involvement in the Child Welfare and Juvenile Justice Systems.” 

Part of the juvenile dependency division of the Eleventh Circuit, this is the first specialized court in the nation devoted solely to human trafficking, according to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.  In addition, while some courts address human trafficking in dependency and some address it in delinquency, the Eleventh Circuit is the first court to address human trafficking both in dependency and delinquency in a unified setting: whenever a child is identified as a victim of human trafficking—whether it is in dependency, delinquency, or family—that case is transferred to Human Trafficking Court.  

Recognizing that there is a “stigma and shame associated with the term human trafficking,” the Eleventh Circuit resolved to call this docket GRACE Court—an acronym for Growth Renewed through Acceptance, Change and Empowerment.  The circuit hopes that, in addition to removing the taint associated with the term human trafficking, the name GRACE Court will “encourage these young people and their families to start seeing themselves in a position of strength and growth.”   

GRACE Court logo, designed by Andrea Junco and Tania Smith, School for Advanced Studies.In developing GRACE Court, the Eleventh Circuit understood that, in order to identify the victims of human trafficking and to respond effectively to their needs, collaboration is essential.  Thus GRACE Court depends upon the use of multi-systems partnerships in order to reap the benefits of collective impact.  For instance, its steering committee—which provides oversight, offers guidance on key issues, recommends actions in matters requiring specialized knowledge, and addresses any problems or concerns regarding the operations, policy, and procedures of GRACE Court—includes representatives from the Department of Children and Families, the Department of Juvenile Justice, the Miami-Dade Office of the State Attorney, the Guardian ad Litem Program, the Office of Criminal Conflict and Civil Regional Counsel, the Miami-Dade County Coordinated Victims Assistance Center, the Miami-Dade County Public Schools Juvenile Justice Support Program, and several local, not-for-profit entities dedicated to creating a better life for children in crisis, as well as a survivor of human trafficking. 

Moreover, GRACE Court utilizes a collaborative, multi-disciplinary team staffing model.  The team includes all managers and service providers involved in a case, as well as members from most of the entities represented on the steering committee.  Meetings take place every other week, and team members—who are expected to be present at all meetings—gather to discuss and review what happened at the last court hearing and what has transpired since then.  Each member discusses the child’s progress and compliance with services, and the information shared at these meetings is addressed at the next court hearing.  To ensure that team members are mindful of the most current information and research as well as aware of the latest screening and assessment tools, they are required to undergo training in human trafficking and trauma-informed services. 

When a child is accepted into GRACE Court, the court evaluates his or her needs and ensures that all referrals are sent to the appropriate service providers.  The court also assists in ensuring that the victim is involved in his or her case plan and/or disposition report.  GRACE Court works diligently to create an environment that empowers victims to recommend the services and provisions they feel are necessary to recover from the trauma and victimization.  Among the services and provisions available are food and clothing, immediate safe housing, medical care, counseling, substance abuse treatment, education and vocational support, employment opportunities, mentoring, and intensive case management.  Collaboration is evident here as well, for GRACE Court has developed an extensive network of community-based partnerships to provide these services.

The circuit’s Protocol for Human Trafficking Cases emphasizes that collaboration—e.g., the multi-systems approach, multi-disciplinary team staffing, and community-based partnerships—are fundamental to the success of GRACE Court.  As it states, “Partners must work together and elicit helpful feedback and solutions regarding this court project. We must learn as a group that success may be measured differently for this population.  The way a community and a legal system react to a victim’s life can influence a victim’s level of engagement and trust.  A specialized court team can coordinate services in an effort to keep victims on the right path, increase self-sufficiency, provide victims with the opportunity for healing and hope, and prevent them from returning to the sex trade or any other life on the streets.”   

GRACE Court is presided over by Judge Maria Sampedro-Iglesia, who is also the associate administrative judge of the circuit’s juvenile division.  She explained that she first developed an interest in this area of law in 2011, after she attended a circuit judges conference at which the phenomenon of human trafficking was discussed.  Dismayed that human trafficking (or child slavery, as she sees it) happens with such frequency in this country, she began to research the matter and to find ways that the Eleventh Circuit could partner with community agencies to help these children.  GRACE Court is the result of her research and contemplations.

Judge Maria Sampedro-Iglesia emphasizes that, “Unbeknownst to most, human trafficking does not only occur in third world countries, but also in our own backyards.  When 12-year-old children are being held captive so their bodies can be sold, this community must respond.  It is my hope that GRACE Court will be the answer for the boys and girls and their families who come to our court system from such desperate straits.”

(posted April 2017)  /  Return to top of page

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. 

(posted April 2017)  /  Return to top of page

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.)   


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.”

(posted January 2017)


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