2017-2018 Annual Report
Issue 3: Improve Understanding of the Judicial Process
Long-Range Strategic Plan for the Judicial Branch of Florida 2016-2021
The judicial branch’s legal authority is a grant by the people, and public trust and confidence in the judicial branch is at the heart of maintaining a democratic society. Promoting public trust and confidence in the courts enhances the effectiveness of court actions, strengthens judicial impartiality, and improves the ability of courts to fulfill their mission. Improved communication, collaboration, and education efforts will better inform the public about the judicial branch’s role, mission, and vision.
Trust in an institution is not a given. But trust can be gained. Studies have found that when people have a knowledge and understanding of the American justice system, their trust in and support for the courts are heightened. To deepen this knowledge, courts across Florida offer educational events and activities for “students” of all ages, providing residents with a host of opportunities to learn about the roles, functions, responsibilities, and accomplishments of the judicial branch. In working to meet the goals of the branch-wide communication plan, and in developing a bounty of education and outreach initiatives using traditional as well as more contemporary communication methods, Florida’s courts seek to deliver timely, consistent, and useful information to all it key audiences: the public; court users; judicial branch partners and stakeholders; government entities; education, business, and civic organizations; the media; and, of course, judges and court personnel.
In 2015, while the Judicial Management Council was revising the branch’s long-range plan, it was simultaneously considering strategies for advancing the communication-related goals that the plan was getting ready to announce. Shaped with input from judges, court public information officers, other court staff, and experts from the private sector, the branch-wide communication plan, Delivering Our Message: Court Communication Plan for the Judicial Branch of Florida 2016, seeks to help the courts build relationships with a variety of partners, enhance public understanding of and support for the branch, speak clearly and purposefully about the branch, support open lines of communication both internally and externally, and communicate effectively using coordinated, strategic efforts. Implementation began in January 2016.
Then Chief Justice Jorge Labarga charged the branch’s designated public information officers (PIOs) with putting the plan into effect in their respective courts, directing them to design strategies and activities that best respond to local needs and resources. Representing the 20 judicial circuits, the five district courts of appeal, the Office of the State Courts Administrator, and the Florida Supreme Court, these PIOs are members of a statewide nonprofit professional association, the Florida Court Public Information Officers, (FCPIO), which holds an annual educational conference as well as monthly conference calls to advance the communications goals outlined in the plan. (Follow this link to access the FCPIO’s Year Two Implementation Report on the communication plan.)
Among its strategies for implementing the communication plan, the supreme court began using Facebook Live in January 2018 to
broadcast court events. Other courts in Florida and elsewhere have used Facebook Live to stream one-time events such as court ceremonies (e.g., judicial investitures or the opening of a new courthouse). But the Florida Supreme Court is the first court in the nation to use Facebook for live, unedited appellate oral argument broadcasts. Viewers can watch the live video simply by visiting or following the court’s Facebook page (they can subscribe to receive notifications when the court begins a live broadcast). After more than a year of continuous use now, the Facebook Live broadcasts have shown themselves to be an overwhelmingly positive development, helping to promote public trust and confidence by improving transparency and openness.
Using Facebook Live for oral argument broadcasts was so novel that it received nationwide media attention when first announced and is being studied today by other court systems, other governmental bodies, and information technology professionals around the world. The most commonly asked question by other courts concerns the comments that viewers can add at the bottom of the broadcast feed. Some judges and court personnel worry that these Facebook comments could become disorderly and detract from the dignity of the broadcast itself. However, supreme court PIOs have not found this to be the case, saying that most comments are relevant and dignified. The few that are not can be handled by enforcement of the court’s Use Policy, attached to the Facebook page itself. Staff worked carefully to craft a use policy that comports with state and federal law as well as the First Amendment.
Another strategy for implementing the communication plan has been the supreme court’s Beyond the Bench podcast program, launched in January 2018. These podcasts address the work carried out by some of the departments at the supreme court, especially those that have the most interaction with the public, such as the Clerk’s Office, the Supreme Court Library, and the Public Information Office. The inaugural podcast features then Chief Justice Labarga and Judge Nina Ashenafi-Richardson, Leon County, discussing how Florida courts communicate with people. In addition to affirming the importance of jurors and of impartial courts, they talk about social media, cameras in the courtroom, and some classic movies about the legal system; six additional podcasts have been issued since then. Other Florida courts have also been producing podcasts: the Eleventh Circuit recently released its sixth podcast (take this link to Community Connect Online), and in March 2019, the Ninth Circuit issued its seventieth podcast (take this link to Open Ninth: Conversations Beyond the Courtroom). Podcasting provides a new and useful way for courts to discuss their roles and for the public to develop a better understanding of the judges who preside over state courts. As the Ninth Circuit’s program so deftly demonstrates, by enabling the public to hear judges talk about their lives and experiences, podcasts, in addition to educating people about the work of the courts, also help to “humanize” judges and justice system processes.
The communication plan also recommends that Florida courts review their websites, ensuring that they effectively provide information about court processes and procedures, services available, and methods for accessing them. Thus, recognizing that their web presence is the “face” of their court—and their primary communication tool—many of Florida’s circuit and appellate courts have revamped the organization and content of their websites. For the supreme court and the five district courts of appeal, this process has been undertaken in a concerted way, spearheaded by the Appellate Court Web Redesign Committee. The redesigned DCA websites, which have a similar look and feel to one another, now have a user-friendly design, are mobile device-responsive, and present information in a clear and organized fashion; the Fourth DCA launched its new site in April 2018, and the First DCA and the Second DCA introduced theirs soon thereafter. The new supreme court website, which went live in December 2018, has some similarities to the DCA sites but maintains a distinct look and feel. Mobile-friendly and user-focused, this new site includes improvements to website architecture, navigation, accessibility, and content to enhance findability and usability for all web audiences. Undergirding its redesign was the goal of providing an efficient mechanism for conducting court business, informing audiences about the work of the court, and increasing understanding about the supreme court and the judicial branch to improve public trust and confidence.
The judicial branch has developed a bounty of resources and opportunities for the people of Florida to learn about their courts. Every circuit and appellate court in the state hosts programs and activities that
inform the public about the courts system—initiatives such as courthouse tours, citizen guides, school outreach programs, teen courts, Law Day and Constitution Day activities, moot court competitions, Take Your Child to Work Days, juror appreciation events, “meet your judge” and “inside the court” types of programs, adoption events, speakers bureaus, citizen advisory committees, and media outreach efforts. Through these initiatives, the judicial branch seeks to educate people from all walks of life about their courts system, to encourage vibrant court-community relationships, to enhance people’s trust and confidence in their justice system, and to help foster a more engaged, informed, responsible citizenry generally.
The Short History of Florida State Courts System Processes, Programs, and Initiatives provides more information about branch efforts to deepen public understanding of the third branch, including an extensive chronicle of branch endeavors to strengthen trust and confidence in Florida’s courts. In addition, the Education and Outreach tab on the Florida Courts website offers a host of resources for boosting viewers’ knowledge of Florida’s courts system. And the Florida Supreme Court’s About the Court tab provides information about supreme court justices, supreme court history, Florida law, Florida courts structure, the supreme court seal, the portrait gallery, art in the court, the architecture of the building, and the various supreme court departments. Described below are some of the other ways the branch strives to provide Floridians with positive, meaningful interactions with their courts.
Judicial Campaign Conduct Forums
Instituted in 1998, Judicial Campaign Conduct Forums are generally offered in the spring of election years for circuits in which a contested judicial election will be taking place. These 90-minute forums focus on the necessity for integrity and professionalism among candidates for judicial office, the impact of campaign conduct on public trust and confidence in the justice system, and the dire consequences of violating Canon 7 of the Code of Judicial Conduct, which governs political conduct by judges and judicial candidates. The forums are organized by the supreme court and The Florida Bar Board of Governors, in conjunction with the trial court chief judges and the Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee. All judicial candidates seeking contested seats or facing active opposition for merit retention are encouraged to attend. The forums are also open to campaign managers and their staff, local political party chairs, presidents of local bar associations, the media, and the public. In May 2018, forums were scheduled for 10 cities throughout Florida. (To learn more about the standards of ethical behavior governing judicial candidates, see An Aid to Understanding Canon 7, prepared by the Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee.)
Annual Reporters Workshop
Recognizing the importance of playing a proactive role in heightening reporters’ understanding of the courts system, the supreme court has hosted an Annual Reporters Workshop since 1989. Presented by The Florida Bar Media and Communications Law Committee and subsidized by The Florida Bar Foundation, these two-day events are designed to teach the basics of legal reporting to reporters who are new to the legal/courts beat, providing them with a helpful introduction to covering justice system issues. The sessions—which are conducted by jurists, attorneys, professors, and veteran reporters—vary each year, but they generally focus on matters like effective techniques for reporting high-profile cases, merit retention in Florida, public records and how to obtain the ones you need, libel law and defamation, lawyer regulation, and journalism in the world of social media.
Florida Supreme Court Teacher Institute
Initially conceived in response to a national study documenting the public’s lack of, and need for, court-related information, the Florida Supreme Court Teacher Institute (formerly known as the Justice Teaching Institute) was first offered in 1997, when then Chief Justice Gerald Kogan launched it as part of the Florida Supreme Court’s Sesquicentennial Celebration. Since then, each year, up to 25 secondary school teachers from across the state are selected to participate in this comprehensive, five-day education initiative on the fundamentals of the judicial branch. The program is sponsored and hosted by the supreme court, funded by The Florida Bar Foundation, and coordinated by the Florida Law Related Education Association.
Taught by the seven justices, two “mentor judges,” and Ms Annette Boyd Pitts, executive director of the Florida Law Related Education Association, the institute introduces the teachers to the structure and functions of the state courts system, the state versus the federal courts systems, the criminal court process, the Florida constitution, the case study method, legal research skills, and the constitutional issues underlying an actual case that is about to be argued before the court. The highlight of the program is the teachers’ own mock oral argument on the very case for which the justices themselves are preparing. The Court Teacher Institute is one of the judicial branch’s most promising efforts to support teachers’ efforts to introduce their students to the vital role courts play in our society.
Visiting the Supreme Court: Oral Arguments, Education Tours, and Education Programs
Visitors to the state capital can enjoy a variety of options for learning about the history and functions of Florida’s highest court. One of the most compelling ways to learn about the inner workings of the supreme court is to attend an oral argument—a “conversation” between the justices and attorneys, during which the attorneys clarify the legal reasons for their position and answer questions posed by the justices. Held August through June, oral arguments are typically scheduled during the first full week of each month and are open to the public. (For more information about oral argument and the oral argument schedule, follow this link.) In addition, since February 2018, all arguments before the state's highest court can be viewed on Facebook Live. Those who cannot attend oral arguments or who are interested in seeing archived ones (the archives go back to 1997) can watch them online, via WFSU’s Gavel to Gavel. Information about high-profile supreme court cases, both current and archived, is also available online.
Visitors can also tour the public areas of the Florida Supreme Court Building. Groups of 10 or more who are interested in a guided tour experience can schedule a 45-minute Educational Program/Building Tour and learn fascinating details about the supreme court building and the personalities who have given life to the court over the years; the tour includes the rotunda, courtroom, library, and rare book room. Smaller groups, or those who prefer to furnish themselves with informational brochures and set off at their own pace, can take a self-guided tour.
In addition, student groups can be scheduled for the Mock Oral Argument Program. This 90-minute activity, which is conducted by a staff attorney or knowledgeable volunteer, culminates in the enactment—in the courtroom of the supreme court—of an oral argument using a hypothetical case. Especially during the 60-day legislative session, from all across the state, teachers bring their students to the supreme court to learn about the third branch of government. All in all, in the 2017 – 18 fiscal year, 8,246 visitors of all ages participated in supreme court education programs. (This link goes to additional information about tours and education programs at the supreme court.)
Florida Supreme Court Library and Archives
The Florida Supreme Court Library, founded in 1845, is one of the oldest of Florida’s state-supported libraries. It was originally established for use by the supreme court and the attorneys who practice before it. Although that continues to be its primary purpose, it now serves the entire state courts system as well. Library staff also provide assistance to other law libraries, law firms, and state agencies, and the library is open to the public: people can do legal or historical research there, and school, family, and adult groups are invited to learn about the treasures in its rare book room.
The library also harbors the supreme court archives, which contain primary documents of Florida Supreme Court history related to the court and its justices. In 1982, the supreme court librarian at the time had the notion of engaging the assistance of some of the dignitaries of the legal community to seek out, collect, preserve, and make publicly available the important historical documents of the members of Florida’s highest court. His idea galvanized the creation of the Florida Supreme Court Historical Society; together, the librarian and the historical society began the process of building the collection—and the archives came into being.
Thanks to the abiding partnership between the historical society and the library, the archives continue to thrive. Recently retired
Justices Barbara Pariente and Peggy Quince made the most copious donations of late: their office files, travel files, opinion files, speeches, and correspondence filled more than 241 boxes (each box holds one and one-half cubic feet of paper). Though some of the papers are confidential, many of these records will soon be available to researchers, scholars, and other members of the public.
During the 2017 – 18 fiscal year, the library archivist worked on multiple projects. He completed inventorying the papers of former Justice James Alderman (on the bench from 1978 – 85); the justice’s speeches, personal and administrative work papers, court conference notes, opinion files, correspondence, and personal memorabilia are now cataloged. Moreover, he began cataloging the professional correspondence, notebooks, and work papers donated by retired Justice James E.C. Perry (on the bench from 2009 – 16). He also inventoried a set of speeches recently donated by retired Justice Stephen Grimes (on the bench from 1987 – 97); these speeches, delivered when he was chief justice (1994 – 95), were added to the existing collection of the justice’s papers. Finally, the archivist began reviewing a set of autobiographical writings and scrapbook materials of former Justice William Ellis (on the bench from 1915 – 38), donated by a descendant; the autobiographical writings primarily address the justice’s time as Florida attorney general (1904 – 09), but the scrapbook materials, mostly newspaper clippings, include his years on the bench.
The archivist also scanned the first Minute Book of the Florida Supreme Court, which covers 1846 – 67. Minute books are kept by the clerk of court for recording summaries of all the judicial orders in proceedings. This particular minute book, more than 500 pages long, preserves the supreme court’s earliest records—which were previously unavailable—and makes them accessible for research use.
In addition to paper treasures, the archives are home to a photograph collection, art work—and even office furniture and office equipment of value to supreme court history. Ms Leslie Dughi, daughter of long-time Florida legislative photographer Don Dughi, shared digital rights to a considerable number of supreme court justice photographs taken from the 1970s – 90s; she also allowed the archivist to scan and add to the collection numerous rare photos and negatives from the photographer’s personal archives. And a large set of photographic negatives of supreme court justices and Office of the State Courts Administrator staff, taken by photographer Larry Colthorp, was donated to the supreme court; these too were scanned and added to the photograph collection. In addition, Panama City artist Roland Hockett donated preliminary drawings of the two bronze eagle sculptures that are on display in the supreme court rotunda. Finally, an historic desk and a classic typewriter, both with judicial connections, were recently gifted to the archives: the Wooten rotary, double pedestal, roll-top desk, donated by the historical society, belonged to former Justice James B. Whitfield (on the bench from 1904 – 43) and is now on display in the library reading room; the 35-pound Underwood typewriter, on which former Justice W. Glenn Terrell (on the bench from 1923 – 64) is said to have drafted many of his opinions, is now on display in the supreme court rotunda.
To familiarize people with the judicial branch and to enhance communication between the courts and other justice system entities, the legislature, and the executive branch, OSCA’s Innovations and Outreach Unit, under the direction of the supreme court, produces the Florida State Courts Annual Report each year. In addition, several times a year, the unit publishes the Full Court Press, the official newsletter of the state courts system, which aims to share information about local and statewide court-based initiatives and programs, to promote communication among Florida’s state courts, and to serve as a kind of “meeting place” for all the members of the state courts family, both immediate and extended.