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. 

Press Releases

News & Initiatives

Office Ergonomics: Creating a Safer, More Comfortable Work Environment

By Beth C. Schwartz, Court Publications Writer

People come in all sorts of shapes and sizes—and they differ widely in strength, flexibility, speed, and skill.  In creating a workplace environment that promotes the welfare and efficiency of the people who work there, one must take into account all these factors.  The science of designing the job, equipment, and workplace to “fit” the worker is called ergonomics.  In studying the interactions between humans and their environments, ergonomics draws upon a variety of disciplines: mechanical and industrial engineering, for instance, as well as fields like physiology, kinesiology, and psychology.  

Did You Know

Although the term ergonomics, literally work management, wasn’t coined until the 1850s, the concept long predates the word.  Endeavors to select or create tools to make tasks easier to accomplish date back to the early stages of the development of the species, anthropologists point out.  An oft-cited—albeit far more recent—example of someone who thought ergonomically is Hippocrates, the “father of medicine,” who lived in Greece in the fifth century BCE and wrote in great detail about the best way to design a surgeon’s workplace, discussing issues like the posture of the surgeon, the position of the patient, the placement of the surgeon’s tools, and the optimal lighting for a hospital.  Naturally, the workplaces of today bear little resemblance to those of Hippocrates’ time, but concerns about ergonomics certainly continue to permeate the workplace. 

These days, the ergonomic focus tends to be the safety, both short-term and long-term, of employees, and, in OSCA, it comes under the purview of OSCA’s Office of General Services.  For Mr. Steven Hall, the chief of this office, improving worker safety is essential—not only because it protects employees and boosts productivity but also because it reduces costs both to employees and employers (e.g., medical bills, missed work days, workers’ compensation payments).  To help supreme court and OSCA employees make their work areas as safe as possible, Mr. Hall periodically facilitates seminars on office ergonomics.  At the most recent seminar, court employees learned that by making simple adjustments to their workstations, they can significantly reduce or prevent the likelihood of musculoskeletal disorders—injuries that result in pain in the body’s joints, ligaments, muscles, nerves, and tendons.  In fact, court employees can take many actions to avoid getting hurt.  


The typical workstation is designed for someone who is considered “average” in size—whatever that means these days.  As a result, to be both safe and comfortable, a workstation must be adapted to accommodate the body that utilizes it.  Chair, keyboard, monitor, mouse, telephone, lighting—if these are not properly adjusted for a person’s body, he or she can suffer serious strain to the neck, back, shoulders, arms, hands, and eyes.

For instance, when you’re sitting in your chair, your feet should be able to rest flat on the floor.  Ideally, we’d all have ergonomic chairs that enable us to adjust their height, the height and width of the armrests, the lumbar support, the seat pan, and the backrest.  If you don’t have an ergonomic chair, then be sure to position yourself comfortably in your chair: rest your shoulders and back against the backrest, and try to keep your neck, shoulders, and arms relaxed—but not slouched—while you’re keyboarding.  Interestingly, although most of us probably remember being commanded as children to “sit up straight,” it’s actually not good to keep your back at a stiff 90 degree angle all day long—it puts an enormous amount of pressure on your lower spine—so be sure to make a conscious effort to relax your back and let the chair do its job of supporting it.

Ms Beverly Beard, paralegal with the supreme court’s Central Staff, learns some tips for avoiding shoulder, arm, hand, back, and eye strain from Mr. Robert Lisson, an occupational therapist with On Site Therapy in Tallahassee.

Ms Beverly Beard, paralegal with the supreme court’s Central Staff, learns some tips for avoiding shoulder, arm, hand, back, and eye strain from Mr. Robert Lisson, an occupational therapist with On Site Therapy in Tallahassee.

When you are sitting upright, your eyes should be level with or just below the top of your monitor so that when you’re looking at something on your screen, you’re looking down about 20 degrees.  This position keeps you from straining your neck; to achieve it, you might have to adjust the height of your monitor or chair.  (Note: if you wear bifocals or progressives, the adjustment might have to be slightly different.)  And because our natural focus point is about 30 inches away from our bodies, be sure to keep some distance between your body and your monitor: separate them by at least an arm’s length.  Also, when you’re working at your computer, your body, keyboard, chair, and monitor should be in a straight line—that keeps your body properly aligned.   

So that you don’t have to reach for it all day, place your mouse next to, and on the same level as, your keyboard—that constant reaching can strain your shoulder, arm, and back.  And check to make sure your keyboard is flat on your desk or keyboard tray.  Your elbows should be at a 90 degree angle, with your forearms and wrists sloping gently down toward the keyboard—with your fingers below your wrists, as if you were playing the piano.  And if you don’t have one, consider getting a wrist rest, which is actually for resting your wrists when you’re not typing, not for leaning on when you are. If your keyboard is on your desk, you’ll definitely want a wrist rest to protect your wrists from the desk’s hard edges—the pressure of which can aggravate carpal tunnel syndrome (a foam rest is fine, but the gel rest is reputed to be even better).

If at all possible, try to set up your computer at a 90 degree angle from a window (if you have a window, that is).  It’s best to avoid having competing light behind your monitor as it can cause eyestrain and eye fatigue.  If your computer is unavoidably in front of a window, close the blinds to reduce the glare.  Also, if you can, adjust the lighting in your office to prevent glare on the screen, perhaps shutting off very intense overhead lights and using indirect or shielded lighting instead.  If you spend a great deal of time on your computer, you might want to consider investing in computer glasses: they focus solely on what is 30 to 40 inches in front of you (which is where your monitor should be) and also have an anti-glare feature. 

Finally, a headset is essential if your job involves using the phone a lot: resting the phone between your ear and your shoulder not only puts you in an infernally unnatural position, but it is also likely to cause tension, stiffness, and muscle spasms in your neck, upper back, and shoulder.

Standing Workstations

In the last few years, research has linked extended sitting to a host of health problems—among them, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and premature death—so many employees, recognizing that movement might improve their health, now use standing workstations.  But if your standing workstation is not correctly adjusted, you too are at risk of developing musculoskeletal disorders.  If you stand at your desk, the same principles apply for positioning your monitor, keyboard, mouse, and the workplace objects to which you need easy access.  In addition, comfortable, supportive (work-appropriate) shoes are a must, and an anti-fatigue mat might help as well.  (For more information about setting up ergonomically sound workstations, both standing and seated, take this link to the website of the US Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration.)

20/20/20 Rule

Most importantly, during the course of the day, especially if you don’t use a standing workstation, remember to move, move, move!  “It is vital that employees in sedentary jobs make time for movement.  Approximately once per hour, workers should get up from their desks and stretch.  Spending breaks walking can also mitigate much of the potential strain of long periods of computer use,” says the Florida Division of Risk Management.   Movement is the kindest gift you can give to your body during work hours.  Periodically, get up from your desk, walk to your printer, walk to your co-worker’s office, walk to the copy machine—whatever it takes to keep you from sitting in the same position hour after hour.  If you tend not to move much while at work, or if your idea of moving is gliding around on your chair from your computer to your printer, your body, and your productivity, are likely to pay a price.  In addition to changing your position and physically moving around, employees are encouraged to follow the “20/20/20 rule”: every 20 minutes, for 20 seconds, look away toward something at about a 20-foot distance.  This will cause your eye muscles—and your brain—to stretch a bit, rejuvenating you for the work ahead. 

It’s critical that we develop healthy habits in our bodily approach to work.  Because most of us are so used to doing things wrong, in ways that have hurt our bodies over many years, these new habits may seem awkward at first.  It’s said that it takes about three weeks to create a new habit, so we have to be patient with ourselves until the new habit settles in.  But the rewards will definitely be worthwhile, and our bodies will surely thank us.

(posted July 2017)  /  Return to top of page

Commission on Access to Civil Justice Welcomes Back Reappointed Members and Hails New Members

By Beth C. Schwartz, Court Publications Writer

In November 2014, Chief Justice Jorge Labarga signed an administrative order establishing the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice.  Citing the challenges faced by disadvantaged, low-income, and moderate-income Floridians when seeking meaningful and informed access to the civil justice system, the chief justice brought together the three branches of government, The Florida Bar, The Florida Bar Foundation, civil legal aid providers, the business community, and other well-known stakeholders to embark upon a coordinated effort to identify and remove economic and other barriers to civil justice.

Since its launch, the commission has proposed the development of a statewide online triage gateway portal that recommends the best existing civil legal resources for users based on variables such as type of case, user’s location, user’s preference, and other factors (currently begin piloted in Clay County); the use of retired judges and retired and active law professors to serve as emeritus attorneys; and the development of web-based, interactive interviews to help self-represented litigants assemble pleadings and other documents suitable for filing.

This term, the commission has been directed to consider “Florida’s legal assistance delivery system as a whole, including but not limited to staffed legal aid programs, resources and support for self-represented litigants, limited scope representation, pro bono services, innovative technology solutions, and other models and potential innovations.”  To carry out this work, the commission established three committees: the Executive Committee, the Services Options Committee, and the Resource Evaluation Committee. 

In addition, because “Employers, too, have a stake in [access to civil justice],” Chief Justice Labarga recently created the Council of Business Partners, a five-member body that will work closely with the Executive Committee to cultivate a collaborative relationship between the corporate community and the civil legal services community.  The chief justice emphasizes that “Employees who have challenges accessing justice have higher absenteeism and reduced productivity.  It is in all our interests to address access to justice.”  He named Ms Tere Blanca, president and CEO of Blanca Commercial Real Estate in Miami, to serve as the liaison between the commission and the Council of Business Partners.  (This link goes to the press release.)

To avoid majority turnover in any year, the commission designates staggered terms for its members.  In addition to appointing Ms Tere, the chief justice selected Mr. Alfredo Garcia, dean of the St. Thomas University School of Law, to fill the position that was vacated when Mr. R. Alexander Acosta, dean of the College of Law, Florida International University, was tapped to become the US secretary of labor.  He also reappointed five members whose terms are set to expire on June 30, 2017: Judge Timothy J. Corrigan, United States District Court, Middle District of Florida; Mr. Thomas S. Edwards, Jr., attorney, Jacksonville; Judge Robert Lee, Broward County; Ms Robin Hassler Thompson, attorney, Tallahassee; and Mr. William A. Van Nortwick, attorney, Jacksonville. 

On June 30 of even-numbered years, beginning in 2018, the commission is directed to submit a report on its progress to the supreme court.  For more information about the Commission on Access to Civil Justice, please follow this link.

(posted June 2017)  /  Return to top of page

Court staff recognized for saving taxpayer dollars

Florida Courts teams were recognized during the 2017 Prudential Productivity Awards luncheon, joining hundreds of other state employees responsible for programs and initiatives that saved millions of taxpayer dollars.

Three courts teams based in Tallahassee were among those recognized this week. State Courts System teams and individuals in Palm Beach County’s 15th Judicial Circuit and North Florida’s Eighth Judicial Circuit join the teams from the Office of the State Courts Administrator in Tallahassee among the 215 state employees from around the state to earn honors this year. Awards programs are scheduled later this month in locations throughout Florida.

It’s the 27th year of the awards program. Organizers note initiatives recognized by the program have produced more than $9 billion in added value or cost savings for taxpayers.

Honored at the Prudential Productivity Awards were:

Early Childhood Court Team

Early Childhood Court Team. 

Office of Court Improvement staff Sandra Neidert, John Couch, Leigh Merritt, David O’Kane, and George Roberts, along with Florida State University’s Mimi Graham, director of the Center for Prevention and Early Intervention Policy for their work on Early Childhood Court.

Among a host of improvements, the work has significantly reduced the time in dependency court before children are reunified with parents, 

cases are closed and adoptions are finalized.

You can read in more detail on the Early Childhood Court webpage

The Office of the State Courts Administrator employees Candace Causseaux, Susannah Davis, Patty Harris, Scott Higgins, Arlene Johnson, Maggie Lewis, Alan Neubauer, and Roosevelt Sawyer were part of the Shared Remote Interpreting Workgroup.

Shared Remote Interpreting Team

Remote Court InterpretingTeam. 

Shared use of remote interpreting services allows courts to greatly improve interpreter services through enhanced technological communications in a state where up to a quarter of its residents have limited English proficiency, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The pilot program has: 

  • Improved quality with circuits leveraging state certified staff interpreter resources
  • Reduced compromises required of circuit court staff in favor of access over quality, because of a lack in available qualified interpreters.  
  • Increased staff efficiency by eliminating time and effort locating qualified interpreters or pay expensive travel accommodations to bring a qualified interpreter in-person to the courtroom.
  • Reduced delays in court proceedings associated with interpreters having to walk or drive between courtroom locations, or wait between hearings in one location, will be reduced.
  • Led to overall improvement of accountability of tax-payer funded court resources.

Family Court Education Team Family Court Education Team

Office of Court Improvement employees Avron Bernstein, Jennifer Grandal, Rose Patterson, Susan Proctor, Leslie Russell, Kathleen Tailer, Carrie Toy, and Andy Wentzell increased learning opportunities for family court judges while containing costs with distance-learning courses, Ask the Expert webinars, and online virtual court to train judges.

Examples include web-based publications for family court judges and court personnel, including 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.  

Read more about increased learning opportunities for Florida’s Family Court Judges

Congratulations to all who were recognized with Prudential Productivity awards. 

(posted June 2017)  /  Return to top of page

Training Introduces Judges to Unique Matters that May Arise During Domestic Violence Injunctions

By Beth Schwartz, Court Publications Writer

Chilling….there’s probably no better way to describe the sensation of the judges attending a recent Florida Institute on Interpersonal Violence training when they were informed, at the beginning of a session on Hi-Tech Stalking, that, at that very moment, the photos and messages on the smartphones of four of the 17 of them could easily be accessed remotely by an uninvited guest! 

Judges participating in domestic violence training Pictured are Judge Peter Ramsberger, Sixth Circuit, and Judge Carroll Kelly, Miami-Dade.

After this gasp-inducing introduction, session presenter Steven Bradley, the safety and technology specialist for the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, explained that if someone forgets to turn off his or her phone’s Bluetooth technology, unwanted visitors can “pair” with that person’s phone, easily breaching its bounty of private words and images.  Indeed, attendees soon learned that trespassers have a bundle of ways to hijack a person’s personal information and whereabouts and use it to their advantage.  They can install spyware and remote log-in software on their target’s computer, for instance, which enables them to monitor his or her computer activities—and even control the computer webcam.  Utilizing the GPS tracking device in a person’s car, smart phone, or camera, they can track down their “mark”—in fact, they can hide a GPS chip in just about anything the victim or the victim’s child has—a handbag or a stuffed animal, for instance—and then use their computers or phones to ferret out that person’s precise movements.  And because social networking posts and photos are generally “geotagged,” cyberstalkers have the ability to pinpoint exactly where their prey is at the time of a post.  

Most of the judges participating in the training had no idea that people—especially victims of domestic violence—could be so vulnerable to the machinations of cyberstalkers.  But, as Mr. Bradley emphasized, this technology is out there, and it is being used—and judges who handle sexual violence injunctions need to be aware of it.

Howard McGillin discussing domestic violence issues Judge Howard McGillin, Seventh Circuit.

This session on Hi-Tech Stalking was just one of many highlights of the second phase of a recent Regional Domestic Violence Training.  This two-part training is the brainchild of the Florida Institute on Interpersonal Violence, which was established in 2014 under the auspices of OSCA’s Office of Court Improvement (OCI) to organize, develop, and provide continuing specialized education and training for all judges who handle matters involving domestic violence.  Enhancing statewide consistency and uniformity in the handling of these cases has been one of the institute’s principal objectives. 

In September 2014, OCI began coordinating Phase I, a two-day training envisioned as a statewide “best practices” approach to the manifold challenges (substantive, procedural, and other) unique to domestic violence cases, especially domestic violence injunctions.  Conducted by Judge Carroll Kelly, Miami-Dade County, and Judge Peter Ramsberger, Sixth Circuit—who have worked together for 16 years to provide domestic violence education to judges—Phase I focuses on domestic violence dynamics, the effects of domestic violence on children, elder abuse, and other civil protective injunctions (dating violence, sexual violence, repeat violence, and stalking).  Altogether, 11 Phase I trainings have been offered so far, all across the state, and more than 170 judges have participated in them; additional Phase I trainings are scheduled for the 2017 – 18 fiscal year.

While the first phase of the training aims to ensure that judges across the state are on the same page with regard to domestic violence injunctions, the second phase, which was first offered in December 2016, addresses rarer matters that may arise during domestic violence injunctions.  In addition to Judge Ramsberger, Judge Kelly, and Mr. Bradley, Phase II faculty include Judge James Colaw, Eighth Circuit; Judge Dan Traver, Ninth Circuit; Judge Michelle Morley and Judge Thomas Eineman, Fifth Circuit; Judge Karen Cole, Fourth Circuit; and Mr. Andy Wentzell, senior attorney I with OCI.  Among the topics addressed in this two-day event are firearms issues; mental health matters; violations and contempt; post judgment motions; judicial stress and vicarious trauma; and alimony, child support, economic relief for victims, supervised visitation, and time-sharing. 

Domestic Violence training Presenters and attendees of the April 2017 training in Tallahassee pose for a group photo.

In addition, a significant portion of the second phase consists of role plays based on domestic violence final hearing scenarios—an exercise that invariably inspires the gathered judges to talk about how they handle certain issues that arise in domestic violence cases, according to OCI’s Kathleen Tailer, senior attorney II who coordinates the Florida Institute on Interpersonal Violence.  As Ms Tailer explained, inherent in domestic violence proceedings are concerns and problems exclusive to these kinds of cases, so judges who adjudicate these cases really appreciate the chance to talk with their peers about some of the unique issues: the role plays “bring up many important conversations,” she added, leading to “opportunities to hear about others’ solutions and suggestions and to a more in-depth study of DV issues appearing in Florida’s courts.”    

Feedback about the recent training emphatically confirmed its practical value.  In their assessments, participants praised the “excellent presenters and information” and underscored that the training was “really well done—don’t change a thing!”  Most gratifying is that the training will likely have positive long-term effects, for, when asked about the improvements they will try to make when they return to their courtrooms and their communities, attendees offered that they “will have more discussions with stakeholders—sheriff’s office, DV shelters, the press—to improve education about the process and to increase efficiency and safety”; “will look into establishing compliance court”; “will try to have a victim advocate in the courtroom on each court date”; “will be more alert to signs of trauma”; “will concentrate on the effects of domestic violence on young children—parents need to understand the effects”; “will try to be more aware of dynamics taking place (power, control, mental health issues, financial issues, substance abuse) and try to create orders to address these concerns”; and “will allow all parties to know and feel that they have been heard and understood.”

Phase II has been offered twice thus far, reaching 41 judges, and two more trainings will soon be scheduled for the 2017 – 18 fiscal year.  For questions or more information about these trainings, please contact Ms Tailer at

(posted June 2017)  /  Return to top of page

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.  
    -- Read more about Operation Fresh Start below --
  • 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 Digital Court Reporting Initiative, Open Court, 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

Florida Supreme Court reports success in court communications

Court Communication Plan

Find your court using social media.

Florida Courts continue to move forward, building on the successes of the first year of the Court Communication Plan for the Judicial Branch of Florida.

"The plan is intended to help Florida courts reinforce the central message they all must consistently deliver: Courts are indispensable to our civil society, our economy and our democracy. This unified message is so vitally important because courts must have the trust of the public to function. And public trust in courts grows from public understanding of courts.”

As a news release from the Florida Supreme Court said about delivery of the Year One Implementation Report, “The goal is simple. It’s not enough that courts do justice. They also must make sure people see justice being done.”

Read the full 2016 Communication Plan Report

(posted May 2017)  /  Return to top of page

Courts and justice partners provide a Fresh Start

A collaborative effort including Fifteenth Judicial Circuit judges and staff to effectively dispose of outstanding nonviolent cases earned a team in Palm Beach County a Prudential Productivity Award, announced in May. The innovative pilot program allows defendants to address fines, reinstate driving privileges and avoid jail.

Fifteenth Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Jeffrey Colbath, in collaboration with Palm Beach County Clerk and
Comptroller Sharon Bock, Palm Beach Sheriff Ric Bradshaw, Public Defender Carey Haughwout, and State
Attorney Dave Aronberg, State Attorney, coordinated an event in April 2016 to assist individuals with outstanding nonviolent misdemeanor and criminal traffic warrants resolve their warrant without facing jail time.

During the event, individuals voluntarily appeared in court, established payment plans for fines and costs,
completed documentation and payments to have their driver licenses reinstated, and most importantly reached a resolution of their warrant without incarceration.

Operation Fresh Start resulted in the recall of 379 bench warrants; the reinstatement or clearing of 160 driver licenses; and the collection of more than $20,000 in fines and fees. Additionally, 96 payment plans were
established to enable monthly payments from litigants toward satisfying fines at a reasonable payment rate. The estimated total cost savings to the citizens of Florida as a result of Operation Fresh Start is $56,471.

(posted May 2017)  /  Return to top of page

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

By Beth Schwartz, Court Publications Writer

(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)

Family Court Logo

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.”

(posted May 2017)  /  Return to top of page

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

By Beth Schwartz, Court Publications Writer

(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.

Family Court Toolkit LogoThe 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. 

(posted May 2017)  /  Return to top of page

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. 

Dependency Court Logo

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, Court Publications Writer

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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