2017-2018 Annual Report
Issue 4: Modernize the Administration of Justice & Operation of Court Facilities
Long-Range Strategic Plan for the Judicial Branch of Florida 2016-2021
The administration of a state court system serving millions of people each year is a complex undertaking. Managing the court system resources and personnel is further complicated by growing customer expectations, ever more complex legal issues and cases, and rapidly changing technology. The judicial branch’s ability to assess its environment and respond appropriately will enhance the broad range of court services and technology solutions designed to meet the needs of court users.
People expect their courts to be effective, efficient, and convenient; they presume that due process will be followed, that disputes will be resolved fairly and in a timely manner, and that useful information will be available to them readily and without undue cost. To meet these expectations, Florida’s courts system—which disposed more than 3.3 million cases on average over each of the last five years—is always working to improve the processes it uses to accomplish its constitutional mission. Breakthroughs in the uses of technology have proven especially fruitful in refining the efficiency, effectiveness, timeliness, and security of court processes.
While safeguarding the security of court data and technology systems is a fundamental concern, so too is the safeguarding of judges, court personnel, and court users—as well as of the court facilities themselves. The branch takes seriously its responsibility to keep the doors of the courthouse open while protecting the people within its walls from emergencies or threats that could endanger them, disrupt court operations, or delay justice.
Technology has become indispensable to the daily operations of the courts, revolutionizing the way the branch meets the needs of everyone who works in or has business in a courthouse, whether physically or virtually. In recent years, Florida’s judicial branch has made significant advances in deploying technology to facilitate the effective, efficient, fair, and timely resolution of cases: it continues to make strides with electronic filing (e-filing); data collection, data management, and case management systems; technological communications enabling the sharing of limited resources (e.g., remote court interpreting services); services for the mobile environment; cybersecurity services; and the automation of court-related processes.
Because technology permeates all aspects of the judicial branch—its procedures, operations, services, and programs—information about court technology projects is ubiquitous, at hand in other sections of this annual report and elsewhere on the Florida Courts website, flcourts.org:
- To read about Virtual Remote Interpreting, the Trial Court Performance Management Framework, and the Uniform Case ReportingSystem—initiatives for which the Commission on Trial Court Performance and Accountability is responsible—see the article on Performance and Accountability above;
- For information on the Do It Yourself Florida project, designed to help self-represented litigants create electronic documents suitable for filing, go to the article on the Judicial Management Council above;
- To learn about the Florida Courts Help App, a mobile-friendly pathway to the most requested court information and forms, view the Access to Civil Justice article above;
- Read about some of the courts system’s e-learning initiatives in the article below on Education for Judges, Quasi-Judicial Officers, and Court Personnel;
- On the Florida Courts website is a chronicling of the recent work of the Florida Courts Technology Commission, which oversees, manages, and directs the development and use of technology within the branch; coordinates and reviews recommendations concerning court policy matters that involve the use of technology; and establishes the technology policies and standards by which all court committees and workgroups must abide;
- Also available on the Florida Courts website is a description of various other ongoing court technology projects.
Particulars about several recent “behind the scenes” technology initiatives are available below.
Electronic Florida Appellate Courts Technology Solution (eFACTS)
Accommodating electronic filing and case management, eFACTS—a project developed by the Office of Information Technology Services (OIT, a unit of the Office of the State Courts Administrator), with assistance from the appellate clerks—is being piloted by the supreme court and the Second District Court of Appeal. eFACTS will replace the existing appellate courts’ case management systems, offering new and enhanced user features, including electronic document management, electronic workflows, electronic voting, remote access via a secured web application, tracking of administrative matters, assignment and working document tracking, calendaring, online docket, and secured access to case information. Since December 2018, eFACTS has also accommodated electronic filing via the ePortal.
The Application Modernization initiative is an effort to update and modernize existing applications within the Office of the State Courts Administrator. Many of these applications were outdated and running on old hardware; due to the age of the hardware, they were failing on a regular basis. The OIT has been in the process of moving the applications to modern hardware, also updating the code and adding enhancements (as well as providing “facelifts” for some applications so they look more modern). This modernization initiative is allowing for better availability and monitoring of applications. Modernization efforts will continue with a look ahead to cloud service capabilities, ensuring that hardware and software remain up-to-date and functional.
Florida Courts Network Improvements
The OIT is improving the Florida courts statewide network operations. The network improvements provide advanced connectivity and enhanced services for all state courts users who rely on telecommunications services managed by the OIT. The core enhancements include additional network bandwidth for those who work in the courts and for the people they serve, with enhanced network services to expand court services, strengthened security for data transmission, and improved on-demand service features.
Enhanced Availability of Document and Email Servers
The OIT has been improving the availability of services through the implementation of multiple access points for all file and email servers for the five district courts of appeal, the supreme court, and the Office of the State Courts Administrator. The enhanced availability of court business functions allows for uninterrupted access to documents and email should a server failure, a power failure, or a natural disaster take the primary site off-line.
PC Desktop Refresh
The OIT led the effort to refresh workstation computers for the Office of the State Courts Administrator, the supreme court, and the five district courts of appeal. The new computers are running modern operating systems and the latest work productivity software.
In November 2001, within two months of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, then Chief Justice Charles T. Wells established the Workgroup on Emergency Preparedness, charging it with developing proposed action plans for the supreme court for a variety of emergency situations, “including natural disasters, terrorism, and extended information systems outages,” as well as with developing statewide emergency preparedness guidance for the entire judicial branch. He directed the workgroup to be guided by two policy goals: protect the health and safety of everyone inside the courts and keep the courts open to ensure justice for the people. For he recognized that the security of the facility and of everyone on its premises—from the judicial officers and court staff working in the building to the court users conducting business within it—is central to the branch’s constitutional mandate to ensure that justice is administered without delay.
Emergency preparedness comprises preparation for unavoidable natural disasters, among them, pandemics, tropical storms, tornadoes, floods, and, of course, hurricanes (Florida is the nation’s most hurricane-prone state). It also encompasses preparing for human-made disasters and threats: calamities like oil spills, biohazards, protracted information systems outages, cyberattacks, and military or terrorist attack-related incidents. Preparing for hazards and menaces of all sorts is an unremitting responsibility, and the judicial branch has taken a multi-pronged approach to meeting it: each court has developed a preparedness plan and a continuity of operations plan, and each court has designated a court emergency management team, an emergency coordinating officer, and a public information officer. The branch also has a Court Emergency Management Group that recommends policy for, prepares for, and responds to emergencies in the supreme court building and in state courts across Florida. In addition, more recently, the rise in security threats and violent incidents in court buildings prompted the supreme court to create the Task Force on Appellate Court Safety and Security and the Trial Court Security Workgroup, which were tasked with developing security standards of operation and best practices.
Preparing for, Responding to, and Recovering from Emergencies
Generally, Florida’s most perilous nature-induced disasters are hurricane-related, and in 2017 – 18, the branch’s emergency preparedness efforts were largely focused on readying for and recovering from the devastations wrought by Hurricane Irma in 2017 and Hurricane Michael in 2018. Irma made landfall in the Florida Keys in September 2017; the storm, 400 miles wide, wreaked havoc as it journeyed up the backbone of the state, razing neighborhoods, flooding vast portions of Northeast Florida, and knocking out power to millions of residents. Every part of the state had court closures. And in October 2018, Michael struck the Panhandle, leaving a trail of devastation for 80 miles, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Georgia border: it blasted communities and their courts, taking lives, destroying property, and hamstringing communications and transportation. Thanks to the work of emergency responders, utility crews, the National Guard, and the local judges and court and county staff, within two-and-a-half weeks, courts in the Fourteenth Circuit and affected courts in the Second Circuit were able to open—but only with limited capacity.
The courts’ emergency coordinating officers, who equip their courts to respond during emergencies or other disruptions, are always on-call. They hold conference calls routinely throughout the year, and, during hurricane season, they receive regular tropical updates; when crises strike, they work together to support the courts that have sustained damage. After Michael, for instance, the Fourteenth Circuit lacked any means of communication, and even some local law enforcement lacked communication means, so Mr. Steven Hall, chief of OSCA’s General Services Unit and the branch’s statewide emergency coordinating officer, together with staff from the Second Circuit, gathered up satellite phones for their use (roads were still impassable, so the Florida National Guard stepped up to deliver the phones to Panama City, where they were lent to court personnel and law enforcement). Moreover, recovery teams from courts across the state helped repair the technology infrastructure damaged in the storm. Looking back on the courts system’s handling of these two hurricanes, Mr. Hall was able to offer several “lessons learned”: in particular, he emphasized the importance of testing backup plans and procedures; the need to ensure each court has failover communication options; and the critical role of social media—especially Facebook and Twitter—in providing information to judges and court personnel from the days leading up to the storm, through its onslaught, and over the recovery period.
Mass shootings are on the rise both in the United States and abroad. Also on the rise is anti-government violence, including a dramatic increase in security threats and violent incidents in court buildings. Because preparing for threats and emergencies is an ongoing requirement, the branch continues to develop strategies to ensure the safety of the public, judicial officers, and court personnel. Recent endeavors include the supreme court’s creation, in September 2015, of the Task Force on Appellate Court Safety and Security and the August 2016 creation of the Trial Court Security Workgroup, under the auspices of the Judicial Management Council (for information about the latter, please see the above article on the Judicial Management Council).
Chaired by Florida Supreme Court Marshal Silvester Dawson, the Task Force on Appellate Court Safety and Security was directed to propose and develop best practices and standards for the appellate courts related to safety and security. Among the recommendations it presented in its final report, submitted to the supreme court in June 2018, the task force advanced a staffing methodology to be used in determining minimum security staffing; established the basic necessary security equipment that must be present at each district court of appeal; identified minimum staff training; and proposed a replacement schedule for equipment. The supreme court approved the task force’s recommendations and encouraged each district court to implement them to the best of its ability.