Chief Justice Message

Message from Chief Justice Jorge Labarga

My all-time favorite movie is “To Kill A Mockingbird,” based on Harper Lee’s grand novel. I watch it every year. I’ve probably read the book 15 or 20 times. 

Do you remember the part when Atticus Finch stands before the jury and makes closing arguments in the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman in a small Southern town in the first half of the 20th century? Atticus searches for the right words, the right message that might convince the all-white jury to do the right thing, to act honestly and justly. After a pause, he tells the jurors that if there is one thing in our system that is the great equalizer it is our courts.

Well, my brief summary hardly does justice to this deeply moving scene, which has inspired me and I’m sure many others–even though Atticus is unable to secure justice for his client. But I wanted to share it because of how powerfully it underscores the profound importance of a fair and impartial judiciary. Atticus’s dedication to justice and the terrible failure of the jurors to do their duty illustrate with utter clarity the importance of our courts.

Courts have a fundamental role in our democracy. I think sometimes we overlook the truth that courts are equally essential to a functioning economy and a civil society. And they are so very important to countless individuals. However, if courts are to carry out their essential roles they must have the trust and confidence of the people they serve.

That’s why annual reports like this one are so important.

Judges and many other employees work in this branch of government to make it possible for people to have a place to seek justice. But they would labor in vain if courts did not have a rock-solid foundation of public trust. As people learn more about their courts, this foundation is strengthened. And this annual report is just one way we in the courts try to reach out to the public to increase understanding about the judiciary.

This report is written for a wide audience–judges and court staff, certainly, but also all the people they serve. I assure you, if you take the time to read this report, you will better understand Florida courts and that greater understanding is critically important to the continuing functioning of the judiciary. As chief justice, I sincerely thank you for the time and attention you give to this report.

Let me give you a small preview of what you will find in the following pages. In this opening message, I will mention only a few highlights, topics that I hope will interest many people. I encourage you to browse through the entire report to discover the wide array of informative articles and graphics on court initiatives and programs in the fiscal year stretching from July 1, 2016, through June 30, 2017. 

The first thing I’d like to draw to your attention: You can also learn more about Florida courts through social media, such as Facebook and Twitter. Florida’s chief judges, trial court administrators and public information officers have carefully and thoughtfully adopted these cutting-edge communication tools to reach out to the people who need courts and use courts. This has been an exciting development–in fact, Florida is a national leader in this area–and you can read more about it in this annual report. 

The use of social media by Florida courts didn’t just happen. It was envisioned in a comprehensive communications plan the Supreme Court of Florida approved two years ago based on the research and recommendation of the Judicial Management Council. The JMC is a board of 15 judges, lawyers, and other public leaders that advises our judiciary. The JMC is charged with keeping on top of developing trends and potential crises so that Florida’s courts can adjust as necessary and, regardless of any challenges, fulfill their mission to “protect rights and liberties, uphold and interpret the law, and provide for the peaceful resolution of disputes.” 

In the 2016-17 fiscal year, the JMC devoted its attention to two important subjects–trial court security and guardianship improvements. I probably don’t need to explain the importance of enhancing the security of our courtrooms, the very place thousands of people go to each day to seek justice. In guardianship cases, a court appoints someone to exercise certain legal rights of a person who has been judged unable to exercise those rights independently because of some incapacity. It’s not just for elderly people–but there is no denying Florida’s very large elderly population is fueling a growth in guardianship cases. And the recent increase in guardianship cases coming into Florida’s courts is expected to climb even faster in the future. Please read more about both these issues in this report. 

Also in this annual report, you can learn about the progress of the Commission on Access to Civil Justice, which is charged with finding ways to make sure more people have meaningful access to courts for important problems, such as issues dealing with families and housing to name just two examples. You can also read about the successful “problem-solving” courts, such as veterans courts and early childhood courts. Finally, you will find basic information about the structure of our court system, which consists of two levels of trial courts and two levels of appellate courts. 

Before I close this message, I must express my deep respect for and gratitude to the people who work in Florida’s courts, both on and off the bench. Together they helped Florida’s trial and appellate courts bring more than 3.3 million cases to conclusion in the 12 months from July 2016 through June 2017. 

Many of these cases were complex and challenging. Often they were painful to everyone involved. But, without exception, every single case was important to the person who brought it to court. Speaking for my fellow Justices and all the dedicated people who work in the Florida judiciary, I promise you we never forget that.