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2017-2018 Annual Report

Issue 1: Deliver Justice Effectively, Efficiently, and Fairly

Long-Range Strategic Plan for the Judicial Branch of Florida 2016-2021

Florida’s people depend on their court system to make fair, reliable, and prompt case decisions.  The administration of justice requires deliberate attention to each case, a well-defined process to minimize delay, and the appropriate use of limited resources.  It is important that the Florida judicial branch continue to implement practices which utilize resources effectively, efficiently, and in an accountable manner while continuing its commitment to fairness and impartiality.

The Florida judicial branch is keenly aware of its responsibility to serve justice fairly and to govern itself effectively, efficiently, and accountably.  These duties are especially weighty in this age of increasingly complex workloads and constrained resources—and in light of the growing need to provide additional assistance and services for self-represented litigants and other court users.  To meet these responsibilities, branch leaders continue working steadfastly to secure sufficient and stable funding for the judiciary, to strengthen the governance and policy development structures of the branch, and to eliminate biased behavior from court operations. 

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State Courts System Funding

Then Chief Justice Jorge Labarga discusses court funding issues with judicial branch leaders.

Then Chief Justice Jorge Labarga discusses court funding issues with judicial branch leaders.

Historically, Florida’s courts receive less than one percent of the state’s total budget each year.  Thus judges and court staff are committed to using their resources carefully, always looking for innovative ways to achieve greater efficiency and enhanced performance through technology and other time- and cost-saving measures. 

Even so, the need for adequate and reliable funding of Florida’s courts is persistent.  When courts have outstanding, critical funding needs, judges, staff, and courtrooms are surely affected—but so are the individuals, families, and businesses that depend on the courts to resolve disputes and achieve justice.  A lack of sufficient and stable funding for staff, buildings, technology, and other resources, for instance, can lead to delays in the processing of cases that are important to the lives of individuals and to the livelihoods of businesses.  Also at risk are the state’s aging trial courthouses, which are often beset by safety or security issues that can put people in harm’s way.  In addition, a dearth of adequate resources can jeopardize opportunities to modernize and enhance court operations—opportunities that maximize taxpayers’ investment in their justice system. 

Suitable and dependable funding ensures that court users can have their needs met, expediently and safely, when they come through the courthouse doors, as hundreds of thousands do each year.  Therefore, branch leaders encourage the state to invest in the people, places, and tools needed to operate the courts system effectively and efficiently for the benefit of those the judiciary serves. 

Funding for the 2017 – 18 Fiscal Year

Leading up to the March 2017 legislative session, state economists, anticipating—and endeavoring to minimize the effects of—tightening revenues and projected shortfalls for the 2018 – 19 and 2019 – 20 fiscal years, urged lawmakers to adopt budget management strategies as they crafted the 2017 – 18 budget.  In response, legislative appropriations panels developed proposals for budget cuts and advised the judicial branch and other state entities to consider potential budget reduction impacts as they crafted their legislative budget requests.

Within this context, from its $84.9 billion budget in fiscal year 2017 – 18, lawmakers appropriated $513.8 million to the judicial branch.  (Note: this figure included $20.2 million for pass through/legislative project funding.)

The branch’s top priority was a pay increase for judges and court staff, and this budget funded a portion of that priority: specifically, effective October 1, 2017, the pay for justices and judges was increased by 10 percent.  The other portion of that priority was a request for recurring funds for the second phase of a strategy to address recruitment, retention, and equity issues affecting court employees.  Although this request was unsuccessful, the budget did provide an across-the-board pay raise for all eligible state employees (effective October 1, 2017, employees with a base rate of pay of $40,000 or less received an annual increase of $1,400, and employees with a base rate of pay greater than $40,000 received an annual increase of $1,000).

Graphic of Lady Justice "Funding Justice"

The budget also provided critical funding to complete the renovation project at the Third DCA.  In addition, lawmakers funded various worthy projects that were not included in the courts system’s legislative budget request.  These projects included drug court funding (Seminole County); juvenile drug court funding (Eighteenth Circuit); veterans court funding (Collier, Lake, Leon, Marion, Miami-Dade, Nassau, and Seminole counties); courthouse emergency renovations repairs (Liberty County); various children’s advocacy center-related initiatives; and funding for medication used to treat alcohol- or opioid-addicted individuals.    

Despite extensive advocacy by the branch and its partners, however, funding was not approved for any of the issues requested by the trial courts and included in the judicial branch budget request (the trial courts sought funding for comprehensive technology improvements, including funding to develop and maintain case processing and management systems, to refresh and maintain court reporting equipment, and to provide a minimum level of infrastructure in counties around the state; they also requested funding for court interpreting services, court case management positions, and staff attorney positions).  Furthermore, the budget reduced the salary appropriation of the trial courts by $2 million, with no reduction in staff (in expectation that the courts could absorb the reduction through salary lapse generated when positions are not immediately filled, for instance); the budget also eliminated 39 unfunded trial court positions.  To address the budget cut, the trial courts implemented a hiring freeze, which created a workload hardship.  Finally, the legislature did not fund the 12 new judgeships certified by the supreme court—nor did it decertify the six judgeships that the court proposed for elimination.  (This link goes to the December 2016 supreme court opinion, Certification of Need for Additional Judges).

Funding for the 2018 – 19 Fiscal Year

Even with record-breaking levels of tourism in Florida, state economists, before the start of the 2018 legislative session, warned of imminent revenue shortfalls (the projected budget gap was exacerbated by recovery costs for Hurricane Irma as well as increasing costs for human services, largely Medicaid, and for growth in K-12 enrollment, for instance).  As lawmakers began to consider the 2018 – 19 budget, economists emphasized that taking a proactive approach in the coming fiscal year would go a long way toward lessening future fiscal disruptions.  

depicts lady justice "Justice for all Floridians"

In March 2018, the legislature passed an $88.7 billion budget for the 2018 – 19 fiscal year (of which the governor vetoed $64 million).  In response to the February 14 Parkland shooting, lawmakers had to partially rewrite the planned budget to accommodate $400 million for school-safety initiatives (increased funding for mental health services, school resource officers, and security improvements).  The judicial branch portion of the appropriations was $538.9 million.  (Note: this figure included $20 million for pass through/legislative project funding).

The trial court’s top priority did make it into the budget: lawmakers restored the $2 million cut from the trial court salary budget that was executed in the 2017 – 18 fiscal year budget.  No other branch budget requests were funded.  Moreover, the legislature did not fund the four new judgeships certified by the supreme court—nor did it decertify the 13 judgeships that the court proposed for elimination.  (This link goes to the November 2017 supreme court opinion, Certification of Need for Additional Judges).

However, lawmakers did fund various laudable projects that were not included in the courts system’s legislative budget request.  These projects included funding for, among other things, electronic transmittal of court alert reminders, medication used to treat alcohol- or opioid-addicted individuals, problem-solving courts, senior judge support, early childhood court program evaluation, and domestic violence GPS monitoring.

In addition, the legislature passed, and the governor signed, a stand-alone bill that addressed the opioid epidemic; in part, the bill appropriated $6 million in recurring funds to the Office of the State Courts Administrator for treatment of substance abuse disorders in individuals involved in the criminal justice system, individuals who have a high likelihood of becoming involved in the criminal justice system, or individuals who are in court-ordered, community-based drug treatment.

Looking Ahead

According to The Long-Range Financial Outlook (a constitutionally-required, three-year budget projection issued by the Legislative Budget Commission), lawmakers will likely have a modest surplus to work with during the 2019 – 20 budget cycle.  However, the outlook for the two fiscal years after that shows the state’s critical expenditure needs outpacing revenues, resulting in a shortfall posture for those years.  Despite increased general revenue projections for the coming fiscal year, state economists are recommending that lawmakers budget the surplus with caution, due to the high costs associated with Hurricane Michael recovery and the possibility of a recession, among other issues.  Take this link for more information about current court funding and the branch’s budget request for the 2019 – 20 fiscal year.

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Judicial Management Council 

The Judicial Management Council

The Judicial Management Council is chaired by the current chief justice, and membership includes an additional supreme court justice. From 2014 – 2018, then Chief Justice Jorge Labarga (on right) chaired the council, and Justice Ricky Polston (on left) was among the council’s 15 voting members.

Judicial Management Councils (JMCs), considered high-level management consultants to the supreme court, have offered guidance and recommendations to the branch since 1953.  The current council—the JMC’s fifth iteration—was established in November 2012 “as a focused advisory body to assist the chief justice and the Court, as specified in rule 2.225 of the Florida Rules of Judicial Administration.”  It was visualized as a “forward looking advisory body to deftly assist the chief justice and the supreme court in proactively identifying trends, potential crisis situations, and means to address them.”  (For more information about the history and responsibilities of the branch’s JMCs, please see the Short History of Florida State Courts System Processes, Programs, and Initiatives.)

The present JMC was conceived as an agile body capable of responding quickly and resourcefully to challenges facing the branch.  This dexterity is achieved through the creation of workgroups that are charged with specific tasks and are dissolved after they complete them.  The JMC is now in its fourth two-year term.  Of the workgroups established in the JMC’s early terms, three have completed their charges and were discharged.  The Performance Workgroup reviewed filings and disposition trends by case type and level of work and made recommendations to the court about how to meet future branch needs for uniform and consistent data reporting and analysis in some crucial performance areas.  The Education and Outreach Workgroup updated the branch-wide communication plan, Delivering Our Message: Court Communication Plan for the Judicial Branch of Florida, which was approved by the court and began to be implemented in January 2016.  And the Long-Range Strategic Planning Workgroup revised the Long-Range Strategic Plan for the Florida Judicial Branch 2016 – 2021, which was approved by the court and began to be implemented in January 2016. 

Below is information about the Access to Justice Workgroup, which is still active, and about three workgroups that completed their charges in 2018: the Trial Court Security Workgroup, the Guardianship Workgroup, and the County Court Jurisdiction Workgroup.    

Access to Justice Workgroup

The Access to Justice Workgroup, established in 2014 and chaired by Mr. Tom Edwards, concentrates on strategies to facilitate access for self-represented litigants.  The workgroup’s primary focus has been the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) Florida project, which guides self-represented litigants and others through a series of web-based interview questions that culminate in the creation of electronic pleadings and other documents suitable for filing.  Under the direction of the workgroup, the Office of the State Courts Administrator has been working with the supreme court’s Advisory Committee on Family Law Forms, the clerks of the circuit courts, the Florida Court Clerks and Comptrollers, Florida Bar committees, Florida Bar staff, and other subject matter experts to develop appropriate question and answer decision logic for interviews in the areas of small claims, landlord/tenant, and family law. 

After interviews are completed, they are carefully reviewed to ensure that they protect due process rights, maintain fairness for both sides, and are legally sufficient.  They are also subjected to a 15-day test phase (testers include Florida legal aid organizations, judges, court staff, attorneys, and lay people).  The interviews are adjusted based on testers’ feedback.

Thus far, interviews to assist self-represented litigants in creating petitions, answers, and associated documents have been drafted and programed for more than 112 pleadings in 24 case types.  Interviews are now complete for the following: landlord/tenant; small claims; simplified dissolution; dissolution; dissolution with children; dissolution with property, no children; modifications for alimony, child support, and parenting plans; temporary support; temporary custody; paternity and the dis-establishment of paternity; name change for adults, children, and families; step-parent adoption for adults and children; interpersonal violence, including domestic violence, repeat violence, dating violence, sexual violence, and stalking; long and short financial disclosure; parenting plans; marital separation agreements; and the child support guidelines worksheet. 

Forms and questions for both sides of a dispute must be completed before interviews are posted.  Recently, the landlord/tenant interviews, which include landlord complaint and tenant response, went live and are now available on the courts system’s statewide e-filing portal. 

DIY Florida is just one of a number of “access to civil justice initiatives” currently supported by the supreme court.  To read about others, please see the article on Access to Civil Justice below. 

Trial Court Security Workgroup

Judge Margaret Steinbeck, Twentieth Circuit, chaired the Trial Court Security Workgroup.

Judge Margaret Steinbeck, Twentieth Circuit, chaired the Trial Court Security Workgroup.

Court security is fundamental to the US system of justice.  When people go to a courthouse to conduct court business or participate in judicial proceedings, they have a natural expectation of safety.  Unfortunately, recent incidents of violence in federal and state courts, resulting in injury and death, have threatened that perception and affected the court’s ability to conduct its business effectively, efficiently, and fairly.  The rise in security threats and violent incidents in court buildings spurred the creation of the Trial Court Security Workgroup.

The JMC began discussing the need for a security workgroup in early 2016, after the release of the branch’s current long-range strategic plan: long-range goal 4.1 emphasizes the need to increase protection of all judges, court personnel, court users, and facilities, stressing effective security, emergency preparedness, and continuity of operations plans.  The Trial Court Security Workgroup, chaired by Judge Margaret Steinbeck, Twentieth Circuit, was formally constituted in August 2016 and directed to examine county courthouse facilities and to evaluate security procedures, practices, and perceptions. 

Reflecting input and feedback from judges, court staff, law enforcement professionals, and other security partners, the workgroup’s final report presents 17 recommendations to promote safety and security in Florida’s trial courts.  Recommendations address model courthouse security practices, fundamental elements of trial court facility security, training recommendations, security funding practices, statewide incident reporting, and partnership opportunities.  After the final report was approved by the supreme court in September 2018, implementation began, shepherded by the branch’s trial court security representatives in concert with the statewide trial court security coordinator.

Guardianship Workgroup

Senior Judge Olin Shinholser, Tenth Circuit, chaired the Guardianship Workgroup.

Senior Judge Olin Shinholser, Tenth Circuit, chaired the Guardianship Workgroup.

Guardians are surrogate decision-makers who are appointed by the court to manage the personal and/or financial affairs of a person who is legally unable to manage his or her own affairs (e.g., a minor or an adult with a developmental disability, a mental health disability, or an age-related disability) and for whom less restrictive alternatives are found by the court to be inappropriate or unavailable.  Although guardianship is not just for elderly people, the rise in Florida’s aging population has significantly intensified the growth in guardianship cases (According to the US Census Bureau, approximately 19.4 percent of the state’s inhabitants are at least 65 years old).  The Guardianship Workgroup, formed in October 2016 and chaired by Senior Judge Olin Shinholser, Tenth Circuit, was established to try to address this potential trend and its ramifications.

The workgroup was tasked with examining judicial procedures and best practices pertaining to guardianships to ensure that courts are best protecting the well-being of people adjudicated to be incapacitated and people alleged to have diminished capacity.  The workgroup focused on six issues: the use of least restrictive alternatives that address specific functional limitations; determinations of incapacity; restoration of capacity; the assessment and assignment of costs associated with guardianship administration; post-adjudicatory proceedings and responsibilities related to guardianship; and training opportunities available to judges and court staff.

The workgroup’s final report, based on feedback from judges, court staff, attorneys, and other guardianship stakeholders, is a culmination of efforts to identify guardianship challenges and includes the workgroup’s recommendations to promote the well-being of those alleged or determined to have diminished capacity.  Among its 25 recommendations to address guardianship and guardianship advocacy issues, the report includes suggestions for amendments to Florida statutes and to court rules as well as suggestions for developing guidance on properly handling guardianship cases.  In June 2018, the recommendations were submitted to the supreme court for consideration and referral, where appropriate, to responsible stakeholders, among them, the Florida Legislature, Florida’s chief judges, the Florida Bar Probate Rules Committee, the Department of Elder Affairs, and the Working Interdisciplinary Network of Guardianship Stakeholders (WINGS).  (Read more about the courts system’s WINGS initiative in the article on Guardianship below.)

Work Group on County Court Jurisdiction

Council members include Judge Robert Morris, Second DCA (on left), who chaired the Work Group on County Court Jurisdiction, and Judge Richard Suarez, Third DCA.

Council members include Judge Robert Morris, Second DCA (on left), who chaired the Work Group on County Court Jurisdiction, and Judge Richard Suarez, Third DCA.

The jurisdictional limit for county court cases may not exceed the sum of $15,000 (exclusive of interest, costs, and attorney’s fees)—a limit that has not changed since 1992.  Likewise, the jurisdictional limit for small claims cases may not exceed the sum of $5,000 (exclusive of interest, costs, and attorney’s fees)—a limit that has not changed since 1996.  To review the county court and small claims jurisdictional limits and to examine the operational issues that would be affected if those limits were adjusted, the supreme court created the Work Group on County Court Jurisdiction in August 2018 and appointed Judge Robert Morris, Second DCA, to chair it.  In November 2018, the workgroup submitted its report and recommendations to the supreme court.

Regarding the county court jurisdictional limit, the work group recommended—and the supreme court supports—raising the limit from $15,000 to $25,000, conducting jurisdictional limit reviews regularly, and monitoring the operational impacts of a jurisdictional change (after analyzing operational impacts on workload, attorney representation, types of cases heard, facilities, technology systems, jury trials, court mediation, court education, and additional implications for justice stakeholders, the work group noted that “Concern over these impacts increases as the county court jurisdictional limit increases”).

Regarding appellate operational and structural issues, the work group recommended—and the supreme court supports—that cases appealed with a value between $15,000 and $25,000 be adjudicated by the circuit court, allowing no direct appeal to the district courts of appeal except as otherwise provided by law.  However, the court stated that further study is needed to determine whether circuit courts should be uniformly required to hear appeals from the county court in panels and whether other changes in the process for review of county court decisions would be desirable.  To this end, under the auspices of the JMC, the supreme court recently established the Appellate Review of County Court Decisions Workgroup, which will submit its findings and recommendations by October 2019.

And, regarding the small claims jurisdictional limit, the work group recommended—and the supreme court will pursue—increasing the limit to $8,000, conducting jurisdictional limit reviews regularly, and implementing an online dispute resolution pilot program.

In its conclusion, the work group noted that “These recommendations will allow the county courts to expand the jurisdictional limit and small claim limit in a manner that adjusts for the modern-day value of the limits established in 1992 and 1996, respectively.  These suggested increases are significant enough to allow more cases to be heard in county court and to increase access to justice for litigants, but not so significant as to overburden the already crowded dockets of county court.”  

Current Workgroups

In addition to the creation of the Appellate Review of County Court Decisions Workgroup, referenced above, Chief Justice Charles T. Canady, who now chairs the JMC, established two new workgroups: the Court Costs and Fines Workgroup, which is reviewing monetary assessments as well as identify innovative methods to reduce the disproportionate impact this issue sometimes has on low-income individuals; and the Remote Appearance Workgroup, which is considering how remote appearance technologies may be appropriately employed in the courts system to enhance efficiencies and cost effectiveness both for courts and for court users.   

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Performance and Accountability 

Judge Vance Salter, Third DCA, chairs the Commission on District Court of Appeal Performance and Accountability.

Judge Vance Salter, Third DCA, chairs the Commission on District Court of Appeal Performance and Accountability.

The Commission on District Court of Appeal Performance and Accountability (DCAP&A) and the Commission on Trial Court Performance and Accountability (TCP&A) were established in the late 1990s to enhance the performance of Florida’s courts and to ensure they use public resources efficiently and transparently (initially, they were created as committees under the branch’s Judicial Management Council). 

Through the development of comprehensive resource management, performance measurement, and accountability programs, these commissions propose policies and procedures on matters related to the capable and effective functioning of Florida’s courts.  Their responsibilities support numerous goals identified in the long-range plan, among them, bolstering branch efforts to “utilize caseload and other workload information to manage resources and promote accountability” (goal 1.3); to “ensure the fair and timely resolution of all cases through effective case management” (goal 1.2); and to “encourage the use of consistent practices, procedures, and forms statewide” (goal 1.5). 

The DCAP&A is currently chaired by Judge Vance Salter, Third DCA, and the TCP&A is currently chaired by Judge Diana Moreland, Twelfth Circuit.  Every two years via supreme court administrative order, each commission is re-established and directed to work on particular issues and projects.  (This link goes to the administrative order governing the 2018 – 2020 term of the DCAP&A); for the administrative order governing the 2018 – 2020 term of the TCP&A, please follow this link.)  Below are some of the major initiatives on which these commissions have been focusing.

Commission on District Court of Appeal Performance and Accountability

District Court of Appeal Staffing Models

In the 2017 – 18 fiscal year, the DCAP&A completed its reassessment of staffing models for the positions under the appellate clerks of

Graphic for District Court of Appeals Performance & Accountability

court (these positions include deputy clerks, who handle functions such as processing incoming pleadings, docketing incoming briefs, preparing and entering orders and mandates, and managing files and records).

The last study and report on DCA staffing models was released in 2008.  Four years later, a review was conducted when the Joint Workgroup on Model Staffing Levels, comprising members of the DCAP&A and the DCA Budget Commission, was created to develop recommendations for allocating all district staff resources (central staff attorneys, law clerks, judicial assistants, marshal’s office personnel, and clerk’s office personnel).  Because e-filing and other automated court processes have been implemented in the district courts since these evaluations, the DCAP&A expected to see changes in the workload associated with positions in the clerks’ offices.

In the 2016 – 18 term, the DCAP&A worked with the district court clerks to revise the methodology for determining the number and kinds of clerk staff positions needed at each of the five DCAs.  Based on the revised methodology and on data from fiscal year 2016 – 2017 clerk staffing level needs, the DCAP&A, in a 2018 report, recommended the retitling of some positions to reflect changes wrought by automation.  In addition, due to the ways in which new technologies have revolutionized case processing and case disposition since the 2008 report, the DCAP&A proposed increases in the staffing level at three of the DCAs.   

Commission on Trial Court Performance and Accountability

Judge Diana Moreland, Twentieth Circuit, chairs the Commission on Trial Court Performance and Accountability.

Judge Diana Moreland, Twentieth Circuit, chairs the Commission on Trial Court Performance and Accountability.

Although Florida’s intermediate courts of appeal (the five DCAs) have been state-funded since their creation in 1957, the trial courts did not become funded through state appropriation until the July 2004 implementation of what is commonly referred to as Revision 7 (a voter-approved amendment to Article V, section 14, of the Florida Constitution).  Before then, each trial court was funded by the individual county in which it sits, leading to disparities in the level of court services provided across the state.  Revision 7 was designed to alleviate these disparities, using state funds to ensure a more equitable distribution of resources to each circuit.  Since the successful implementation of Revision 7, the TCP&A has largely focused its efforts on establishing new, state-level performance and accountability policies for the trial courts, with the goal of providing better, more uniform services across all circuits.

During the 2016 – 17 fiscal year, in addition to its participation in the Joint Due Process Workgroup, the TCP&A worked on three major technology initiatives: Virtual Remote Interpreting, the Performance Management Framework, and the Uniform Case Reporting System.

Due Process Services

Due process is a judicial requirement that ensures legal proceedings are conducted in accordance with established rules and principles designed to safeguard people’s legal rights.  In Florida, the term due process elements refers to three resources that directly protect litigants’ fundamental constitutional and legal rights: expert witnesses (who provide independent expert opinions concerning scientific or technical matters in dispute or concerning the physical, psychological, or mental condition of people in court matters involving fundamental rights); court interpreting (which eliminates barriers in the courts system for litigants with disabilities or limited ability to communicate in English); and court reporting (which creates and preserves a record of words spoken in court and provides their timely and accurate transcription in the event an appeal is filed).

Established in 2015, the Due Process Workgroup is tasked with identifying factors affecting the cost of providing these due process 

graphic for Trial Courts Performance & Accountability

services in the trial courts and with developing recommendations to improve the provision of these services.  Because its charges involve both policy and fiscal considerations, the workgroup comprises members both from the TCP&A and from the Trial Court Budget Commission (chaired by Judge Margaret Steinbeck, Twentieth Circuit).  The workgroup is co-chaired by TCP&A chair Judge Moreland and TCBC member Judge John Stargel, Tenth Circuit.

The workgroup began by identifying funding and operational policy changes that could improve the provision of court-appointed expert witness services.  Its report, Expert Witnesses in Florida’s Trial Courts, identifies factors affecting the cost of providing expert witness services and recommends comprehensive fiscal and operational solutions for the management of these services, including a statewide rate structure for the payment of certain types of evaluations.  The supreme court adopted the report in a February 2017 administrative order, and since then, the standards and best practices codified in the order have improved the delivery of expert witness services  and have generated cost savings across the state.  Indeed, because expert witness contractual expenditures decreased, the workgroup was able to recommend, and the TCBC approved, a year-end spending plan for fiscal year 2017 – 18 (the workgroup recommended that cost savings in contractual funds be utilized to purchase $1.8 million in Virtual Remote Interpreting equipment to enhance court interpreting services).  In addition, the cost savings prompted the workgroup to recommend a redistribution of resources among the three due process elements for fiscal year 2018 – 19.

In 2018, based on workgroup recommendations and feedback from trial courts around the state, the supreme court issued a revised rate structure chart to specify the types of evaluations covered by the statewide rate structure and to provide clarifications to the chart.  These amendments, released in a June 2018 administrative order, further standardize payments across the state.

Also in 2018, the workgroup turned its attention to the provision of court interpreting services.  Based on the information it gathered, the workgroup focused its attention largely on the difficulty in hiring and retaining certified court interpreters.  To address this challenge, the workgroup recommended a four-part court interpreter salary increase package, which was approved by the supreme court, contingent upon the Trial Court Budget Commission’s confirmation of sufficient salary dollars. 

Virtual Remote Interpreting

Virtual Remote Interpreting provides a service similar to telecommunications software application products like Skype and Facetime. Using audio and video components, VRI enables the interpreter and the defendant to communicate simultaneously while the defendant is before the judge.

Virtual Remote Interpreting provides a service similar to telecommunications software application products like Skype and Facetime. Using audio and video components, VRI enables the interpreter and the defendant to communicate simultaneously while the defendant is before the judge.

For people whose English language skills are limited, court interpreting services are essential in ensuring their constitutional right of access to justice.  However, as the Due Process Workgroup noted above, the branch faces challenges in addressing the increased needs for quality interpreting services.  Technology-based solutions are helping Florida’s courts meet these challenges. 

As early as 2010, several circuits began preliminary explorations of sharing remote interpreting services utilizing audio and video technology.  Then in 2014, with funding from the legislature, the branch formally expanded this pilot effort: five circuits (the Seventh, Ninth, Fourteenth,

Fifteenth, and Sixteenth) began sharing remote interpreting resources, and OSCA housed the call manager.  The success of this pilot prompted the supreme court to create the Shared Remote Interpreting Workgroup (a joint venture of the TCP&A, the Court Interpreter Certification Board, and the Due Process Technology Workgroup), which developed a business model for sharing remote interpreting services across circuit jurisdictions.  After the court approved the business model, it directed the TCP&A to create the Shared Remote Interpreting Governance Committee.  Chaired by Chief Judge Elizabeth Metzger, Nineteenth Circuit, the committee was charged with establishing a statewide court interpreting pool for remote interpreting and developing recommendations regarding additional funding needs; collecting workload data and needs-based funding information; and overseeing administrative/management issues associated with shared remote interpreting. 

The committee also oversees the implementation of the remote interpreting technology: Virtual Remote Interpreting (VRI) is a state-of-the-art solution that provides a service similar to telecommunications software application products like Skype and Facetime.  While telephone interpreting is limited to providing consecutive interpreting (i.e., the interpreter must wait for the parties to finish speaking before communicating and providing an interpretation), VRI enables the provision of simultaneous interpreting (the interpreter communicates and interprets as the parties speak).  Utilizing both video and audio components, VRI enables remote interpreters to provide service as if they were located in the courtroom.  

The implementation of VRI is divided into three phases.  In Phase I, in a courtroom with audio and video connection, the interpreter, dialing the specific courtroom location, appears remotely for pre-scheduled events; these events are point-to-point (two locations only), and calls (both audio and video portions) are routed through the call manager located in Tallahassee.  Phase II includes the addition of multi-point functionality; via a bridge, located either on premises or in the cloud, participants can be in three different locations—e.g., a judge in the courtroom, a defendant at the jail, and the interpreter at his or her workstation.  And in Phase III, interpreters appear remotely for on-demand events: from a courtroom with audio and video connection, a call made to a uniform number is routed to an available interpreter.  VRI implementation is now in Phase II and is slated to be fully implemented in participating circuits in 2019.

The Trial Court Performance Management Framework

In 2014, the supreme court directed the TCP&A to develop recommendations for a performance management framework that would support branch efforts to improve the trial courts’ capacity for measuring their performance and applying the results to make procedural refinements.  The underlying goal is to enhance service delivery in trial court services and programs and ensure the effective use of court resources. To carry out this directive, the TCP&A established the Performance Management Workgroup, which submitted Foundations for a Performance Management Framework in June 2016.  This report describes the framework’s goal and scope, its essential element principles and administrative principles, and its long-term objectives.  The court approved the report and charged the commission with continuing its development of the framework.  

Soon thereafter, Judge Moreland re-authorized the Performance Management Workgroup; after a year-long review of performance management literature, the workgroup, chaired by Judge William F. Stone, First Circuit, submitted Recommendations to Improve Performance Management in Florida’s Trial Courts, which provides suggestions for advancing the statewide collection and use of performance measurement data.  The supreme court adopted the report in October 2018, and, in keeping with report recommendations, the TCP&A, via AOSC18-19, is now establishing a Data Quality Workgroup dedicated to improving and building confidence in trial court data.

The Uniform Case Reporting System

The Uniform Case Reporting System is a data collection project designed to capture the case activity data that the judicial branch deems necessary for achieving process improvement.  The project was animated by a February 2015 report of the Judicial Management Council’s Performance Workgroup, which recommended that the TCP&A propose clerk collection and reporting requirements that address the collection of specific data elements, detail the transmission of that data in a prescribed format, and establish a meaningful timeframe necessary to enhance performance reporting.

Overseen by the TCP&A’s Court Statistics and Workload Committee, which is chaired by Judge Paul Alessandroni, Charlotte County, the Uniform Case Reporting System implements near real-time case activity event reporting across all case types.  In this project, a case is divided into a number of events of importance in tracking a case.  Significantly, these events can be defined differently for each type of case. 

Event reporting will provide greater detail of case activity generally, as well as a more nuanced picture of the activity occurring in a particular case type, thus enabling the courts system to better manage cases.  Specifically, this more detailed caseload information will improve the judicial branch’s ability to monitor practices and procedures, assist with the timely resolution of cases, manage local resources, justify funding requests, and satisfy constitutional duties such as the supreme court’s annual “Certification of Need for Additional Judges.” 

Since June 2018, the Office of the State Courts Administrator (OSCA) has been working with clerks of court to support their implementation of this dynamic data exchange framework.  While near-real time data exchange has proven challenging to all, by January 2019, more than 40 of the 67 clerks had completed their vendor development phase and began testing their data exchange capabilities with OSCA.  In addition, nine counties have reached the second phase of the transition process: clerks, circuit court administration, and OSCA have been working together to verify and enhance the quality of the case activity data being exchanged.  These quality data are the source for the essential organizational management tools that are instrumental in the branch’s efforts to perform its mission with greater efficiency.  To learn more about Uniform Case Reporting, please follow this link.

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Fairness and Diversity Awareness

Florida’s judicial branch strives to exemplify fairness and unbiased justice.  This commitment is inherent in the branch’s vision statement, which says, “To be fair, the Florida justice system will respect the dignity of every person, regardless of race, class, gender or other characteristic, apply the law appropriately to the circumstances of individual cases, and include judges and court staff who reflect the community’s diversity.”  This commitment is also manifest in the first high-priority area of branch’s long-range plan—“Deliver justice effectively, efficiently, and fairly”—and in the long-range plan’s first articulated goal, which is to “Perform judicial duties and administer justice without bias or prejudice.”  

For more than three decades, the branch, with the help of numerous supreme court-appointed committees, has endeavored to realize 

The Standing Committee on Fairness and Diversity is chaired by Judge Peter Estrada, Tenth Circuit (in center); the vice chair is Judge Claudia Isom (ret.), Thirteenth Circuit (third from left). Here, after a training at Ave Maria School of Law on Implicit Bias, Explicit Justice: Fairness and Diversity Insights from the Bench, they pose for a photo with some of the participants.

The Standing Committee on Fairness and Diversity is chaired by Judge Peter Estrada, Tenth Circuit (in center); the vice chair is Judge Claudia Isom (ret.), Thirteenth Circuit (third from left). Here, after a training at Ave Maria School of Law on Implicit Bias, Explicit Justice: Fairness and Diversity Insights from the Bench, they pose for a photo with some of the participants.

these objectives, working heedfully to create court settings that are free of preconceptions and to shape environments in which judges, court personnel, attorneys, and litigants treat each other with courtesy, dignity, and consideration.  (Take this link to read more about the history of fairness and diversity initiatives in Florida’s judicial branch.)

Presently shepherding the courts system’s fairness initiatives is the Standing Committee on Fairness and Diversity, established in 2004 to “advance the State Courts System’s efforts to eliminate from court operations bias that is based on race, gender, ethnicity, age, disability, financial status, or any characteristic that is without legal relevance.”  This committee is re-authorized every two years via administrative order, which identifies the particular issues that members are enjoined to address during that term.  Currently chaired by Judge Peter F. Estrada, Tenth Circuit, the 17-member body—which includes judges, attorneys, a trial court clerk, and representatives from The Florida bar, law enforcement, Florida universities, and the office of equal opportunity—had another active term.  During the 2017 – 18 fiscal year, the committee focused extensively on building its outreach efforts to advance fairness and diversity initiatives in the Florida justice system and on expanding its diversity education campaign for judges and court staff (this link goes to the administrative order governing the 2016 - 18 term). 

Among their efforts to support fairness and diversity initiatives in the justice system, committee members participated in mentoring events across the state.  Among them were the John Kozyak Minority Mentoring Picnic, in Miami; the Hillsborough County Bar Association’s Annual Diversity Networking Social, in Tampa; and the Tenth Circuit’s Diversity and Inclusion Networking Social and Student Mentoring Event, in Lakeland.  The committee also held a lunch and learn with faculty and students at the Florida State University College of Law.  (To learn about other diversity events, both past and upcoming, view the committee’s Fairness and Diversity Calendar.)

And in support of the committee’s diversity education efforts, Judge Estrada and Justice Alan Lawson (justice liaison to the committee) participated in a panel discussion on implicit bias in the courts at the Annual Reporters Workshop in Tallahassee; the Tenth Circuit coordinated its second Fairness and Diversity Summit, for which Justice Lawson was a keynote speaker; and the Fifth Circuit facilitated a Judicial Training in Implicit Bias program, for which Judge Estrada conducted diversity training for judges and court staff. 

Among the instructional offerings at the Tenth Circuit’s Third Annual Fairness and Diversity Summit, which drew approximately 75 participants, was a session called How Diverse is Your Universe, conducted by members of the summit planning committee. Pictured here are the planning committee chair, Judge Andrea Smith (at podium), and committee member Judge Kelly Butz.

Among the instructional offerings at the Tenth Circuit’s Third Annual Fairness and Diversity Summit, which drew approximately
75 participants, was a session called How Diverse is Your Universe, conducted by members of the summit planning committee. Pictured here are the planning committee chair, Judge Andrea Smith (at podium), and committee member Judge Kelly Butz.

The most momentous training event was a Sentencing Bias Train-the-Trainer Program held at the Dwayne O. Andreas School of Law, Barry University, in April 2018.  Thirty-four participants—including judges, court diversity team members, and other court staff—attended this two-day event, at which Professor Rachel Godsil, Seton Hall Law School, introduced them to the knowledge and skills needed to provide sentencing bias training to their local judges.  After the program, the committee created a speaker’s list that identifies judges and court personnel staff throughout the state who have met the criteria necessary to provide diversity and sentencing bias training; these speakers will be available to conduct trainings for circuits, law schools, civic organizations, or other groups interested in promoting diversity or learning about sentencing bias.  (The list is available on the branch’s Fairness and Diversity webpage.)   

In May 2019, Miami will host the thirty-first annual conference of the National Consortium on Racial and Ethnic Fairness in the Courts—an organization that endeavors to promote racial, ethnic and fairness principles in courts across the country.  Long-time committee member (and former committee chair) Judge Scott Bernstein, Eleventh Circuit, serves on the board of the National Consortium and is chairing the conference planning committee.

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