History of Court Processes, Programs, and Initiatives

 Improve Understanding of the Judicial Process

Education and Outreach Initiatives

Studies regularly reveal that when people have a greater understanding of and knowledge about the American justice system and the role of the courts within it, their confidence in and support for the courts is heightened.  Thus through creating opportunities for the people of Florida to learn about their courts, the judicial branch seeks to foster the people’s trust and confidence in their court system.  In developing educational opportunities for people of all ages, the courts provide Floridians with forums for learning about the role, functions, and accomplishments of their courts—and they also help to foster a more engaged, active, and conscientious citizenry.  The accounts below highlight some of the many initiatives the branch has designed to provide Floridians with positive, meaningful interactions with their courts.

Judicial Campaign Conduct Forums

The Judicial Campaign Conduct Forums, first instituted in 1998, are typically offered in the spring of election years for circuits in which a contested judicial election is taking place.  In these 90-minutes sessions, judicial candidates learn about the requirements of Canon 7 of the Code of Judicial Conduct, which governs political conduct by judges and judicial candidates.  The forums focus on the value of integrity and professionalism among candidates for judicial office, the impact of campaign conduct on public trust and confidence in the justice system, and the chilling consequences of any breaches to the code.

The forums are coordinated by the supreme court, the trial court chief judges, the Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee, and the Board of Governors of The Florida Bar.  In addition to judicial candidates, the forums are open to campaign managers and their staff, local political party chairs, the presidents of local bar associations, the media, and the public. 

Annual Reporters Workshop

Since 1989, the supreme court has been hosting an annual Reporters Workshop, a two-day event designed to teach the basics of legal reporting to journalists who are new to the legal/courts “beat.”  Presented by The Florida Bar Media and Communications Law Committee and subsidized by The Florida Bar Foundation, the workshop is open to newspaper, radio news, TV news, and internet news services reporters who have been nominated to participate by their editors.  Sessions are led by justices, judges, attorneys, professors, and seasoned reporters.

Workshops often include sessions on effective techniques of reporting high-profile cases, public records and how to get the records journalists need, libel law and defamation, lawyer regulation, merit retention, juvenile justice in Florida, amending Florida’s constitution, and journalism in the world of social media.  Because the public still gets most of its information about the justice system from traditional news sources, the branch recognizes the importance of playing a proactive role in deepening news reporters’ understanding of the courts system; this workshop provides reporters with a very helpful introduction to covering justice system issues.

Justice Teaching Initiative

Founded by then Chief Justice R. Fred Lewis in 2006 and coordinated by the Florida Law-Related Education Association, Justice Teaching is a law-related education initiative that aims to partner a legal professional with every elementary, middle, and high school in the state.  The goal of the initiative is to promote an understanding of Florida’s justice system and laws, develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and demonstrate the effective interaction of Florida’s courts within the constitutional structure.

Currently, more than 4,000 lawyers and judges have been trained to serve as resources for Justice Teaching, and all of the state’s public schools—and hundreds of its private schools—have Justice Teaching volunteers.  After participating in a Justice Teaching training session, volunteers have access to a bounty of tested interactive strategies for involving students in lively exchanges about the justice system and how it affects their lives.  (Take this link to the Justice Teaching website.)

Justice Teaching Institute

The Justice Teaching Institute—initially conceived in response to a national study documenting the public’s lack of, and need for, court-related information—was first offered in 1997, when then Chief Justice Gerald Kogan envisioned it as part of the Florida Supreme Court’s Sesquicentennial Celebration.  Since then, each year, the institute selects between 20 and 25 secondary school teachers from across the state to participate in a comprehensive, five-day education program 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 primarily 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, accessing legal resources, the oral argument process, the value of a fair and impartial judiciary, 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.

When teachers return to their classrooms, many of them develop a courts unit for their students, and others facilitate training programs for the teachers at their school.  The teachers, whose enthusiasm is truly electric, have educated and inspired generations of young people about the history, roles, and consequence of the third branch.  The institute is one of the courts system’s most promising efforts to introduce school children to the vital role courts play in society.  (For more information about the Justice Teaching Institute, follow this link.)

Visiting the Courts: Oral Arguments and Education Tours and Programs

Every circuit and appellate court in Florida offers a dynamic array of programs and activities that inform the public about the courts system—endeavors like courthouse tours, citizen guides, Justice Teaching and other school outreach efforts, teen courts, Law Day and Constitution Day activities, moot court competitions, Take Your Child to Work Day, Girls State and Boys State activities, “meet your judge” and “inside the courts” programs, jury appreciation events, adoption events, speakers bureaus, public opinion surveys, citizen advisory committees, and media outreach efforts.  These activities are devised to educate people from all walks of life about the judicial branch, bolster court-community relationships, and enhance people’s trust and confidence in their justice system.  (This link goes to a compilation of court-community relationship activities by circuit and DCA.)

In addition, visitors to the state capital can take advantage of a variety of options for learning about the history and purpose of Florida’s highest court and the fundamentals of Florida’s courts system.

One of the most compelling ways to become familiar with the inner workings of the supreme court is to attend oral arguments—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.  Oral arguments are held once a month, generally during the first full week of each month, from September through June.  For most cases, arguments last approximately 40 minutes (20 minutes each side), and argument sessions typically comprise four cases.  Visitors are welcome to observe oral arguments (the courtroom holds up to 165 visitors), and no appointment is necessary.  (For information about oral argument and the oral argument schedule, follow this link.)  Those who cannot attend oral arguments or who are interested in seeing archived ones (going back to 1997) can view them online via WFSU’s Gavel to Gavel(Take this link to Gavel to Gavel.)  Also available online is information about high-profile supreme court cases.  (This link goes to information about high-profile cases and other high-profile matters.)

The Florida Supreme Court also offers tours and educational programs for student groups (from fourth graders through college students) and for citizen groups of all ages.  Several different tour options are available.  Groups of six or more visitors who are at least high-school age can take the 45-minute Educational Tour, a guided tour that brings the history of the court alive with fascinating facts about the building and its inhabitants past and present.  An alternative for smaller groups or those with less time is the Building Tour, which is designed for all age groups: this fast, concise walking tour through the rotunda, portrait gallery, courtroom, and library offers visitors a brief introduction to the supreme court, focusing on the courthouse, the justices, and tidbits of court history.  And the third option is the self-guided tour, which is ideal for individuals, small groups, and those who prefer to go at their own pace: equipped with informational brochures, these tour-goers learn about the public areas of the building (courtroom, library, rare book room, lower rotunda, portrait gallery, and Lawyer’s Lounge).

Two different educational activities are available to student groups.  The Education Program, for fourth graders through college students, includes both a tour of the building and a talk that takes place in the supreme court courtroom, focusing on the judicial branch, Florida’s courts system, the differences between trial and appellate courts, and the role of the justices and how they are appointed and retained.  The other education program is the highly-popular Mock Oral Argument Experience: students spend the first part of this 90-minute program learning about the judicial branch and Florida’s courts system; then, led by a staff attorney or trained volunteer, the students, playing the parts of justices, attorneys, the clerk, and the marshal, act out an oral argument on an age-suitable hypothetical case (the court offers 19 cases from which to choose).  This activity is designed for fifth graders all the way up through college students.

Finally, student groups from Leon County can participate in the Journey Through Justice Program, which works in conjunction with the Courtroom to Courtroom Program offered by the Leon County Teen Court in the Second Judicial Circuit.  Students gain a comprehensive understanding of the courts system and Florida’s third branch through participating both in a mock trial, which uses role-plays to introduce them to the various positions in a trial courtroom, and a mock oral argument, which builds critical thinking skills.  (For more information about these education programs, take this link.)

Florida Supreme Court Library and Archives

The Florida Supreme Court Library, established in 1845, is the oldest of Florida’s state-supported libraries.  Although it originally was intended for use by the supreme court and the attorneys practicing before it, it now serves the entire state courts system.  The library also responds to calls for assistance from other law libraries and from law firms in the state and around the nation.  The public can also explore the library and utilize its resources: people come to do legal or historical research, and school, family, and adult groups visit as well, eager to learn about the treasures in the rare book room and to admire the archival rarities on display in the reading room.

Included in the library’s print collection are historical Florida primary legal resources dating back to the state’s territorial period as well as numerous treatises and other legal reference materials; the library has an extensive collection of historical statute law of the United Kingdom, for instance.  The library is also designated a selective federal depository library for legal materials (the US is the largest publisher in the world, and through its Federal Depository Library Program, the US Government Publishing Office distributes certain classes of government documents free of cost to designated libraries throughout the US and its territories; in turn, these federal depository libraries must offer free, public access to these collections).  (To visit the library’s website, follow this link.)

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.

The archives continue to thrive, thanks to the abiding partnership between the historical society and the library.  The collection now includes papers of 26 justices and comprises more than 1,000 boxes of records, including justices’ administrative papers, professional correspondence, texts of speeches, notes from their work on court committees, personal papers, and opinion files.  The collection also includes the work of a number of court commissions, the 1966 Constitution Revision Commission papers, and papers related to the revision of section 14 to Article V of the Florida Constitution, commonly referred to as Revision 7 (a 1998 constitutional amendment that required the state to assume responsibility for funding the state courts system).  (Follow this link to discover what materials are housed in the archives.)

Court Publications

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 Publications Unit, under the direction of the supreme court, produces the Florida State Courts Annual Report each fall.  (This link goes to the annual reports.)  In addition, in the spring and summer, the Publications Unit publishes the Full Court Press, the official newsletter of the state courts system, whose aim is 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.  (Take this link to the newsletters.)

The Branch-Wide Court Communication Plan

At the same time the Judicial Management Council was developing the branch’s 2016 – 2021 long-range plan, it was considering strategies for advancing the communication-related goals that the plan was readying to announce.  Crafted with input from judges, court public information officers and other court staff, and the press, the branch-wide communication plan, Delivering Our Message: Court Communication Plan for the Judicial Branch of Florida 2016, aims 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, and communicate effectively using coordinated, strategic efforts.  Implemented over four years, “The plan will serve as a guide for the entire branch statewide,” Chief Justice Labarga announced.   

Delivering Our Message is the court system’s second branch-wide communication plan.  Its first, published in 2000, concentrated on external communication, particularly communication with the public: its priorities were to educate the public about the role and functions of the branch, provide information to help the public navigate the judicial system, and establish mechanisms to receive public input regarding court operations. 

After the supreme court reconstituted the Judicial Management Council in 2012, then Chief Justice Polston, who chaired the council at the time, established an Education and Outreach Workgroup to focus on issues related to effective communication, public trust and confidence, and the use of clear, unified messages within and outside the branch.  Updating the communication plan became the workgroup’s first project.  Designed to be a user-friendly resource for the judges and court personnel who will be implementing it, Delivering Our Message identifies four high priority strategic areas that the branch must address in order to “create, strengthen, and preserve support for the Florida court system”: Enhancing Public Trust and Confidence; Speaking with One Voice – Key Court Messages; Improving Communication Methods; and Strengthening Internal Communication.   

While the old and new plans intersect in many ways, Delivering Our Message differs from its predecessor in a number of significant areas.  Most materially, although both plans highlight the need to enhance external communication, the new plan also accentuates the importance of improving internal communication efforts.  Other focal points of the new plan include the need to establish meaningful relationships with key audiences and to speak with one voice.  And because communications have changed so dramatically in the 16 years separating the two plans, the new plan also urges full utilization of the latest technological tools to improve communication methods: for instance, recognizing that “new media such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter are transforming the way people seek out information and understand the world,” the current plan encourages consideration of these communication tools as “opportunities for courts to promote openness and accountability,” to “encourage conversation between the courts, journalists, and citizens,” and “to listen to public concerns.” 

In addition, the two plans represent different kinds of roadmaps for growth.  The first communication plan called itself a strategic plan: it identified what needed to be done but did not propose specific projects and tasks for achieving those ends.  Delivering Our Message, on the other hand, is more of an implementation plan, rich with practical tasks, projects, strategies, and “Try This” suggestions in which court-based individuals, units, groups, or committees may engage to reach the plan objectives.  But the plan doesn’t impose prescriptions for strengthening internal and external communication; rather, it emphasizes that each court has the discretion to determine how to incorporate the plan’s goals and strategies, based on local needs and resources, and local courts are encouraged to develop new and creative solutions that work best for them.  Delivering Our Message also outlines procedures for institutionalizing the plan and for regularly monitoring progress toward achieving its goals.  (Take this link to read the communication plan.)PDF Download

To bring the plan to fruition, the Florida court public information officers (PIOs) are playing a major role (the supreme court has had a PIO since 1996, and since 2003, the chief judge at each trial court and DCA has designated a court staff member to perform these duties).  Indeed, Chief Justice Labarga charged the PIOs with putting the plan into effect, and, with their guidance, Mr. Craig Waters and the Supreme Court Public Information Office will manage the implementation of the plan.

Calling the implementation of the plan “one of the major legacies of my administration,” Chief Justice Labarga welcomed the release of Delivering Our Message, heralding it as “another chapter in our rich history of access and transparency.”

The Justice Teaching Institute: Renewing the Lives of Teachers and Their Students

Sponsored by the supreme court, underwritten by the Florida Bar Foundation, and coordinated by the Florida Law Related Education Association, the Justice Teaching Institute (JTI) annually offers up to 25 of Florida’s secondary school teachers the chance to study closely, and to see in action, the operations of the third branch.  Established in 1997, the institute was conceptualized by former Chief Justice Kogan as a feature of the court’s Sesquicentennial Celebration, and it has been going strong ever since.  To participate in this demanding, interactive four-day program, teachers undergo a rigorous selection process.  Although the program is indeed challenging and intense, each year, the teachers universally agree that the education they received is peerless.

Under the tutelage of the supreme court justices (typically, all seven participate in the program), JTI fellows delve deeply into a wide range of court-related topics.  In recent years, for instance, Justice Pariente has talked about the role of a fair and impartial judiciary; Justice Quince has coached the teachers about how to conduct an effective mock oral argument; Justice Lewis has introduced the teachers to the particulars of the case they will be scrutinizing and the applicable law; Justice Canady has discussed court system funding issues; Justice Polston has given instruction on the structure and function of Florida’s state courts system and compared it to the federal system; Justice Labarga has introduced them the importance of judicial independence and judicial selection; and Justice Perry has led them on a Florida constitution “scavenger hunt.”  In addition, teachers learn about accessing legal research materials and performing Internet-based legal research with the supreme court librarian and her staff.

JTI fellows also spend several hours in the Leon County Courthouse, where they witness the beginning of the “Trail of Justice”: sitting in the jury box, they watch a Second Circuit judge, a public defender, and a state attorney reenact the trial court case that became the basis for the case on which the teachers will be doing their mock oral argument—and on which the justices will be doing the very real oral argument the following day.

The JTI experience is also enriched by the daily mentoring of Ms Annette Boyd Pitts, executive director of the Florida Law Related Education Association, and the two mentor judges who help the teachers prepare for their mock oral argument and provide general instruction about the court system. Ms Boyd Pitts also introduces the teachers to law-related teaching methods and lesson extensions as well as to information about how to establish local JTIs in their schools—and she provides them with enough pedagogical tools to help them keep their students usefully and eagerly occupied for years.

A good gauge of the success and popularity of this program is the teachers’ feedback—which is invariably passionate.  In their evaluations, teachers say that JTI is “one of the best trainings I have ever taken” and call it “one of the most amazing weeks of my life….I have been to training schools from Miami to Pittsburgh and have testified in courts from Florida to Michigan to Kansas, but nothing has ever been as informative, educational, or interesting as this last week.”  Teachers especially appreciate “the daily interaction with the supreme court justices” and “the individual attention we received from the justices.”  As one attendee declared, this attention “inspired and motivated me to always do my utmost to treat my students with the personal interest and commitment shown me; to instill in them a love and respect for an honorable court and justice system.” The teachers also enjoy the chance to “meet educators from around the state and have the opportunity to share best practices” with them.

JTI is a gift that keeps on giving, for, when the teachers return to their classrooms, many of them develop a courts unit for their students, and others facilitate training programs for the teachers at their, and neighboring, schools. The teachers, whose enthusiasm is truly electric, have educated and inspired generations of young people about the history, roles, and consequence of the third branch. The institute is surely one of the courts system’s most promising efforts to introduce school children to the vital role courts play in society.  (Take this link for more information about the Justice Teaching Institute.)

Strengthening Public Trust and Confidence in the Courts

“Fairness is the foundation of the public’s trust and confidence in their court system. Courts that operate fairly and treat all participants with respect are perceived to be places where justice is done.  By establishing and maintaining for more than two decades committees that are specifically dedicated to studying matters of fairness, the Florida courts have demonstrated their strong commitment to the elimination of bias and disparate treatment” (from Perceptions of Fairness in the Florida Court System, a report of the supreme court’s Standing Committee on Fairness and Diversity, 2008).

“The [Innocence] Commission remains dedicated to working together and focused on the common goal of reducing or eliminating the possibility of the wrongful conviction of an innocent person, thereby increasing conviction of the guilty and affirming our commitment to preserving the public trust and confidence in our criminal justice system” (from the Chairman’s Remarks, Interim Report of the Innocence Commission, 2011).

“These forums [campaign conduct forums for judicial candidates] aid in maintaining a high level of integrity and professionalism among candidates for judicial office and in increasing public trust and confidence in the judicial system” (from An Aid to Understanding Canon 7: Guidelines to Assist Judicial Candidates in Campaign and Political Activities, 2016).

As this sampling of quotations illustrates, court leaders and their justice system partners appreciate that, in order to fulfill its constitutional mandate and to maintain respect, the judicial branch must hold the confidence of the people it serves.  This subject received considerable notice at the 2013 inaugural meeting of the branch’s fifth Judicial Management Council.  With the state economy and court funding showing signs of stabilizing after six very challenging years, and with no immediate or imminent court-related crises to command their consideration, council members relished the opportunity to contemplate big picture issues, one of which was attitudes toward the courts.  Within the context of declining levels of faith in public institutions generally, members emphatically agreed that one of the branch’s priorities should be enhancing public trust and confidence, and they expressed an interest in tracing Florida courts system efforts to foster trust and confidence over the years.

Although the above quotations were excerpted from recent publications, the matter to which they call attention is, in fact, deep-rooted: branch leaders have long recognized the importance of strengthening and maintaining the institution’s credibility.  As Chief Justice Major Harding—who made “rebuilding the public’s trust and confidence in the court system” the keynote of his administration (1998 – 2000)—pointed out,

The issue of public trust and confidence is not new.  In 1906, Roscoe Pound delivered his celebrated address on “The Causes of Popular Dissatisfaction with the Administration of Justice” to the American Bar Association annual meeting.  The address, universally considered the most influential paper ever written by an American legal scholar, began with the observation that “dissatisfaction with the administration of justice is as old as the law” (September – October 1998 Full Court Press). 

Not surprisingly, Florida court chronicles don’t that date back quite that far.  But sleuthing readers can uncover a profusion of court-based reports, administrative orders, newsletter articles, and other miscellaneous documents that offer a peek into court system endeavors to earn the public’s trust and confidence over the last six decades.  These endeavors typically fall into three categories:

Adopting practices to make the courts more accessible, transparent, and accountable

—for when the judicial system reduces barriers to access, and when it reveals to

the public how it works and how it uses its resources, its credibility is enhanced;

Advancing public education

—for when people have a greater understanding of and knowledge about the

American justice system and the role of the courts within it, their confidence in

and support for the courts is bolstered;

And creating opportunities for two-way communication, including mechanisms to receive input regarding court operations

—for when the courts engage in meaningful communication—e.g., through outreach initiatives that involve “active listening” (to justice system partners, the other branches, the business community, the press, and the public)—two important goals are realized: first, the people develop a deeper appreciation of and respect for the institution; at the same time, the courts benefit from hearing the concerns of, and being able to respond to, the needs of the people.

Taking a chronological approach, this article will touch on some of the highlights of the last 60 years.

The Judicial Council of Florida, 1953 – 1980

The work of the branch’s first Judicial Council of Florida, which thrived from 1953 – 1980, reflects one of the earliest documented efforts to encourage citizens to get involved in the work of the court.  The council was created to seek strategies for remedying an overburdened court system and for achieving a more efficient administration of justice generally, and even the composition of the membership signified that two-way communication and public outreach would play a big role in these ventures—for of the 17 members, nine were laypeople.  Meetings were choreographed to facilitate the full participation of these lay members: as the council’s first chair, Justice Elwyn Thomas, describes, “At the outset it seemed wise to keep the procedure in the Council as informal as possible so that the lay members would not be confounded by legalistic jargon or complex parliamentary situations but would be interested, enthusiastic, and, above all, vocal as discussion progressed” (Thomas, The Judicial Council of Florida: A Sketch, 1958). 

On top of working to promote the active engagement of lay-members, the council also invited the public to attend—and to add their voices (and sometimes even their votes) to—its meetings.  Explained Justice Thomas, “Another policy set in the beginning brought not only acclaim but also spectators.  The doors were never closed.  Everyone who came was granted the privilege of speaking and often when polls were taken in meetings visitors’ names were called with the names of the councilmen that they might vent their views and give the Council the benefit of their advice.”   Further, to encourage the greatest possible participation from the public, meetings were held all across the state.  The overall lucidity, accessibility, and comity of the meetings ensured that public opinion would resonate in the council’s recommendations for simplifying, improving, and advancing the administration of justice.

The court system is now benefitting from the guidance of the branch’s fifth Judicial Management Council.  Although each of the five councils has had a distinct set of charges, all have included public members, and, for all, two-way communication has been elemental. 

Cameras in the Courtrooms, 1979

Although inspiring public trust and confidence in the judicial process wasn’t its express goal, the introduction of cameras into Florida’s courtrooms has certainly had that effect.  Most states banned cameras, radio, and, later, TV, from courtrooms after the “media frenzy” spectacle at the 1935 trial of Bruno Hauptmann for kidnapping and murdering the infant son of Charles and Ann Morrow Lindbergh in New Jersey.  As technology became smaller and less intrusive, however, interest in broadcasting from courtrooms began resurging.  In 1977, under Chief Justice Ben F. Overton, the Florida Supreme Court authorized a one-year experiment allowing cameras to return to state courtrooms. 

At the end of the pilot, after soliciting feedback from judges, attorneys, parties, jurors, and witnesses, the court concluded that cameras caused no harm—in fact, they conferred a great benefit by making the judicial process accessible and transparent to the public.  This conclusion was permanently written into the rules of court in a 1979 opinion authored by Justice Alan Sundberg.  With this opinion, Florida propelled a national movement that eventually brought cameras into most state court systems in the country, and even some federal courts.  Since conducting that experiment, the supreme court has continued instituting measures to boost the openness and accessibility of court proceedings.

Fairness and Diversity Commissions, 1987 – present

Public outreach, which was instrumental in the recommendations of the first Judicial Management Council, has also played a big role in the recommendations of the supreme court’s various fairness and diversity commissions over the last few decades.  Established in 1987, the Florida Supreme Court Gender Bias Study Commission, for instance, spent two years collecting data to gauge the extent to which gender bias permeated Florida’s legal system.  In addition to examining case studies and doing scholarly research, the commission, through numerous public hearings and regional meetings, gathered testimony from legislators, professionals in a wide array of fields, and others who wished to share their experience of gender bias in the legal system.  Public input helped shape the commission’s recommendations to the supreme court.

Then, in 1989, the supreme court established the Florida Supreme Court Racial and Ethnic Bias Commission to address the question of whether racial or ethnic considerations adversely affected the dispensation of justice to minority Floridians.  This commission also did extensive research, conducted empirical studies, and held public hearings across the state to listen to the concerns of the people of Florida.  Again, feedback from Florida citizens informed the commission’s recommendations to the court. 

Continuing in this tradition of soliciting public opinion from across the state was the Standing Committee on Fairness and Diversity, established by Chief Justice Barbara Pariente in 2004 and renewed by successive chief justices.  To chronicle perceptions of disparate treatment in Florida courts, this commission, like its forebears, gathered considerable public input through surveys, public meetings, and written comments.  In response to this feedback, the committee produced practical educational materials to help judges, court staff, and lawyers recognize, respond to, and understand their role in eliminating from court operations bias based on race, gender, ethnicity, age, disability, socioeconomic status, or any characteristic that is without legal relevance; public opinion also had a role in the branch’s decision to implement regular fairness and sensitivity awareness trainings for judges and court personnel.

Florida Council of 100, 1993 – 1995

In addition to reaching out to the public for suggestions for improving the administration of justice, the judicial branch has also reached out to the business community and various professional organizations to glean their perspective on court system challenges and their suggestions for addressing those challenges.  In 1993, prompted by concerns about current and projected workload demands, Chief Justice Rosemary Barkett approached the Florida Council of 100—an influential, high profile organization comprising 105 of Florida’s top business and industry leaders—seeking an “independent, objective, private-sector insight into problems facing the courts and justice system, as well as viable alternatives for solutions.”  (Founded in 1961, the council, appointed by the governor, serves as an advisory board on matters of public policy in all areas of government.)  Embracing the chief justice’s request, the council embarked on a year-long study of Florida’s complex justice system—a process that involved widespread research and public testimony. 

Two months before the 1995 legislative session began, the council released its findings and recommendations in a report entitled Four Points for Progress, Four Points for Partnership.  Included in the report was a trenchant message for the Florida legislature: “Increased funding for Florida’s State Courts System, prosecution, and defense must be a top funding priority for the 1995 legislature.” 

Bolstered by the recommendations of the Council of 100, the state courts system forged a coalition early in the session with the goal of encouraging the legislature to substantially increase funding for the “middle” of the state’s criminal justice system—courts, prosecution, and defense—through which all cases must flow (the “front end”—law enforcement—and the “back end”—the prison system—were already better-funded).  In addition to the courts, the coalition included the Florida State Attorneys Association, the Florida Public Defenders Association, and the Office of the Attorney General; also lending support were the Florida Council of 100, The Florida Bar, and the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers.

The court’s “Fill the Gap” initiative was highly successful, culminating in an urgently-needed funding increase that year (new dollars funded new judgeships, increased compensation to senior judges and judicial assistants, 50 additional trial court law clerks, and additional positions to support family courts, appellate clerks and marshals, and drug courts).  This success was palpable evidence of the gravity and value of communicating with and eliciting input from court-user communities and of establishing broad-based support for court initiatives.

Development of the Branch’s Three Long-Range Plans, 1992 – 1998; 2006 – 2009; and 2014 – 2016  

In 1992, under Chief Justice Rosemary Barkett, the court system began conceptualizing its first long-range planning project.  (It began soon before Florida voters passed an amendment to the constitution that directed every department and agency of state government, including the judicial branch, to develop a long-range plan.)  Called 21st Century Justice: Guiding Florida’s Courts into the Future, the chief justice’s planning project was officially launched in June 1993 with a two-and-a-half-day conference in Tampa.  More than 60 people participated, representing all segments of the justice system and a broad range of citizen interests and groups.  The conference provided participants with an opportunity to begin formulating their preferred vision for the future of the justice system in Florida.  Through several workshops, the 21st Century Justice project set the branch’s planning process in motion. 

Then in 1995, under Chief Justice Stephen Grimes, the responsibility of developing the first long-range plan was given to the branch’s third Judicial Management Council (active between 1995 and 2004).  To coordinate this effort, the council appointed a Steering Committee on Long-Range/Strategic Planning.  Chaired by First DCA Chief Judge E. Earle Zehmer and then by Eleventh Circuit Chief Judge Joseph P. Farina, the steering committee embarked on a labor-intensive process that took three years to complete.   

To encourage the participation of a wide range of constituents and consumers of judicial branch services and members of the general public in the planning process, the steering committee designed the branch’s most comprehensive outreach program to date.  The program consisted of a series of workshops and presentations to supreme court committees, student and professional groups, and judicial branch organizations.  In addition, the steering committee conducted nine regional workshops with participants from a wide range of backgrounds, including judges, court staff, attorneys, community groups, court service providers, teachers, medical professionals, and other members of the general public. 

This outreach program was supplemented by a major public opinion research effort spearheaded by the Committee on Communication and Public Information, another body appointed by the Judicial Management Council.  Established in 1995 and chaired by Fifth DCA Judge John Antoon II, the communication committee set out to determine the level of public knowledge about the court system, attitudes regarding the court system, and the issues and particular concerns of the public relative to the court system.  The committee’s research included a phone survey of over 1,000 Florida residents as well as seven regional focus group sessions, at which participants discussed and prioritized issues identified through the phone survey. 

Both the steering committee’s outreach program and the communication committee’s public opinion research effort were described as exercises in “active listening” to people who work in the justice system as well as members of the public.  The findings from this period of “attentive, responsive listening” ultimately begot an illustrious fruit: the judicial branch’s first long-range plan, Taking Bearings, Setting Course, published in 1998.

Because trends, challenges, and opportunities are always changing, a long-range plan is never intended to be a fixed, definitive document—thus, 11 years after the first plan was released, the branch released its revised plan, conceived to steer the branch from 2009 through 2015.  And then, as 2015 began to glimmer on the horizon, branch leaders advised that it was time once again to re-evaluate and refresh the long-range plan.  And active listening was again foundational to the development of both these plans: in order to discover how people perceive their courts and what the branch can do to improve its processes, branch leaders mobilized comprehensive, thoughtfully-considered outreach efforts devised to get feedback from as broad a spectrum of Floridians as possible.  These outreach effort included hard copy and/or electronic surveys developed for a variety of court audiences (judges, quasi-judicial officers, court personnel, clerk of the court personnel, attorneys, justice partners, jurors, court users, and the general public); telephone and/or mail surveys; meetings with justice system partners; and regional public forums. 

Chief Justice Gerald Kogan’s Court Access Initiative, 1996 – 1998  

The first chief justice to serve after the branch began long-range planning was Gerald Kogan (1996 – 1998)—and he was also the first chief justice of Florida to be inaugurated publicly.  Befittingly, then, enhancing public access to the state’s justice system became his major policy initiative.  His Access Initiative was a response to a recommendation of the Judicial Management Council (the body charged with oversight of the planning process) to ensure that the courts are open to every person.

The Access Initiative had three strategic goals: to improve the state courts system’s response to the needs of court users; to increase people’s understanding of the courts and the justice system; and to increase citizens’ ability to use the courts efficiently and effectively, thereby facilitating access to the court system and to justice. 

To coordinate the Access Initiative, the chief justice chose Craig Waters, his executive assistant for external matters.  Many objectives were realized under his guidance.  For instance, self-help centers were established to provide some assistance to self-represented litigants.  The courts began working to bring people into the courthouse for occasions other than just the formidable business of lawsuits or prosecutions (e.g., the supreme court’s Sesquicentennial Celebration events, the Justice Teaching Institute, Inside the Courts Programs, and art exhibitions and performing arts in the courthouse).  The supreme court’s website presence was expanded to support the distribution of court-related information and materials directly to the public (e.g., supreme court opinions, forms for pro se litigants).  The website also began to include educational tools; for instance, it introduced Kids’ Court, a groundbreaking program designed to help school-age children and their teachers learn more about the legal system.  The mounting of cameras in the courtroom also played a critical part in making the court more accessible: the live broadcasting of oral arguments offered the public a window into the workings of the supreme court. 

At the same time, the Access Initiative placed a high priority on enhancing media relations.  As mentioned above, in 1997, as part of the long-range planning process, the Judicial Management Council conducted a statewide phone survey, completed by over 1,000 randomly-selected respondents, to gauge the public’s opinions of and levels of knowledge about Florida’s courts.  While revealing that “The public is very uninformed about the judicial system,” the survey also disclosed that, for the majority (65%), the primary sources of information about the courts were the media (newspapers and TV).  Since the media tended to focus on court-based stories of a more sensational nature, many people had a skewed perception of the courts—prompting the branch to realize that it must take a proactive role in deepening the news media’s understanding of the court system.  To reach this goal, the branch introduced the custom of meetings with reporters and editors to dispel misinformation and address questions about the courts; another feature of this initiative was the creation of a press information page on the supreme court website to provide the media with easily accessible information about the courts, same-day downloads of opinions, briefs in pending cases, and press summaries of cases.

Recognizing the value of having a dedicated supreme court employee to facilitate communication between the court and the media—as well as between the court and the public—Chief Justice Kogan, in 1998, created the position of full-time public information officer for the supreme court and offered the position to Mr. Waters.  At the time, very few courts in the state had a public information officer.  However, not long after, prompted by the 9/11 tragedy, Chief Justice Charles T. Wells directed each chief judge to designate a court staff member to serve as his or her court’s public information officer.  Since then, each DCA and circuit court has had a staff person who coordinates emergency response activities and provides information to, and answers questions from, the media and the public.

Justice Teaching Institute, 1997 – Present

The phone survey conducted as part of the Judicial Management Council’s long-range planning process, while reporting that most people get their court information from the media (see above), also revealed that people would rather get that information from the courts themselves.  Indeed, 46% of respondents said that their preferred information source would be “the courthouse” (“school/library” came in second, at 22%).  This finding impelled the branch to begin taking steps to familiarize people with the court system: in Justice Major B. Harding’s words, “It is our responsibility as officers of the court to take a leadership role in educating the public about Florida’s courts system.”   

The Justice Teaching Institute, spearheaded in 1997 by then Chief Justice Gerald Kogan, was designed to address the public’s lack of, and need for, court-related information.  Each year, up to 25 public and private secondary school teachers are selected to take part in this rigorous, hands-on education program on Florida’s courts.  During the course of this training, the teachers meet with the supreme court justices and other judges, learn about alternative dispute resolution, delve into some of the pressing issues confronting the courts, participate in mock oral arguments, and engage in an extensive review of and dialog about a constitutional issue currently before the court.  The teachers then incorporate the information they learn into their classroom curricula and often offer local justice teaching institutes to other teachers in their schools or districts, thus ensuring that the program benefits enjoy a ripple effect.

Through the enthusiastic participation of the teachers who attend the Justice Teaching Institute, court leaders aim to educate and energize young people about the history, roles, and consequence of the Third Branch.  The institute is considered one of the court system’s most promising efforts to introduce school children to the vital role courts play in society.

Another highly successful law-related education initiative is Justice Teaching, founded by Chief Justice R. Fred Lewis in 2006.  Justice teaching aims to partner a legal professional with every elementary, middle, and high school in the state.  Its goal is to promote an understanding of Florida’s justice system and laws, develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and demonstrate the effective interaction of Florida’s courts within the constitutional structure.  More than 4,000 lawyers and judges have been trained to serve as resources for Justice Teaching, and all of the state’s public schools—and hundreds of its private schools—have Justice Teaching volunteers.    

The Flowering of Digital Technology, 1997 – Present

According to the Florida State Courts System’s Prospectus 1998, “Since becoming the first Court on the World Wide Web in 1994, Florida’s Internet presence has become a model for providing people greater access to the courts.”  Since then, the branch has continued to embrace digital technology to enhance access, support transparency and accountability, advance education, and facilitate justice.

Chief Justice Kogan’s Access Initiative was in part responsible for jump-starting the court system’s development of a robust Internet presence.  As described above, under his administration, the supreme court website was expanded to assist with the distribution of court-related information and materials directly to the public and to share educational tools with young learners (e.g., the Kids’ Court Program).  In addition, a press information page was created to provide the media with easy access to court-related information, court opinions, briefs, and press summaries.  Other web-based innovations from the late 90s include the provision of forms and information to help self-represented litigants navigate the court system; the development of basic website standards to ensure consistency and improved access; and live gavel-to-gavel coverage of supreme court oral arguments. 

Advances since then are far too copious to list—so what follows is just a taste.  Among the more momentous technology innovations that facilitate the efficient administration of justice are the Judicial Inquiry System (a data query system that provides judges with information that enables them to make time-sensitive decisions quickly and easily, thus enhancing public safety); the Florida Dependency Court Information System (a statewide dependency court data management system); the Florida Drug Court Case Management System (a statewide case management system for drug court and other problem-solving dockets); and electronic filing (through an electronic portal, parties can deliver court records and supporting documents electronically to the clerks of court, and they can view and retrieve court documents for their cases from any computer with Internet access).  Current projects that will further improve the administration of justice are the Trial Court Integrated Case Management System and the Electronic Florida Appellate Courts Technology Solution.  (To learn about other court technology projects, follow this link.)    

In addition, the supreme court website now offers a host of resources designed to help educators teach their students about the court system and to support the judges and lawyers who volunteer to teach civics education in their neighborhood schools (through Justice R. Fred Lewis’ Justice Teaching Initiative).  Moreover, technological innovations have helped to enhance court transparency, accountability, and accessibility.  For instance, on the Florida courts website,, the public now can view state court solicitations, with information about transactions like requests for proposals and invitations to bid, and people can also see court-awarded contracts.  And all of Florida’s courts are working to ensure that their electronic court information and technologies are accessible to and effective for people with disabilities as well as others.   

Through these and other technology modernization efforts, the judicial branch is striving to improve the efficiency of the court system and to facilitate the public’s access to the courts and court information. 

Chief Justice Major B. Harding’s Public Trust and Confidence Initiative, 1998 – 2000

In his message in Prospectus 2000: Strengthening the Foundation of Justice, which was a retrospective of his two-year administration, Chief Justice Harding compares Florida’s courts to the Empire State Building.  Like the lofty skyscraper, he analogizes, Florida’s court system

depends on a solid foundation to fulfill its role as envisioned by the framers of the Constitution.  But rather than concrete and steel, Florida’s courts are built on a foundation rooted in the trust and confidence that people have in the courts.  In a free society, it is only with the confidence of the people that courts can maintain their authority. 

Acknowledging that many people have doubts about the efficiency, the fairness, and the accessibility of the court system—and that the average person does not understand how the courts operate—he made fortifying public trust and confidence the hallmark of his administration.

It should be noted that, in this pronounced commitment to strengthening public trust and confidence in the courts, Florida’s judicial branch was not alone.  A nationwide survey conducted by the American Judicature Society in 1994 found that 80 percent of the court community acknowledged a lack of public trust and confidence in their respective jurisdictions and ranked this challenge as one of the five most pressing problems facing the judicial branch.  In response, restoring trust and confidence became a widespread phenomenon in the late 90s, spurred, in large part, by the vision of Judge Roger Warren, president of the National Center for State Courts from 1996 – 2004.  His drive informed the National Center’s coordination, in 1999, of a National Conference on Public Trust and Confidence in the Judicial System, in which each state participated via a team of judges and court personnel.  In response to an invitation from the Judicial Management Council, Judge Warren also came to Florida to speak.  The timing of this national movement was auspicious for Florida’s courts: it provided a firmer foundation for, and it lent momentum and a vocabulary to, Florida’s longstanding efforts to improve public trust and confidence in its courts. 

To support Chief Justice Harding’s goal of strengthening public trust and confidence, Florida’s court system took a two-pronged approach advocated by Judge Warren: it took steps to improve the essential quality of the system, and it worked to facilitate meaningful communication between the courts and the public.  Among the strides to improve the quality of the system were the formation of performance and accountability committees at both the trial court and appellate court levels; the implementation of the Delphi-based Weighted Caseload Project (a method for measuring judicial workload based on weighted cases); and the development of the model family court to provide families and children with an accessible and coordinated means of resolving disputes without driving families further apart. 

To promote meaningful communication between the courts and the public, the branch worked to strengthen relations with legislators and with the public, while local courts implemented various communications initiatives tailored to the needs of their constituents (e.g., Judicial Branch Orientation for Legislators, the Judicial Ride-along Program, Inside the Courts, Ask-A-Judge, Elder Justice Center, Court School, Teen Tobacco Court). 

Unequivocally, to promote trust and confidence, judges must have the knowledge, skills, and expertise needed to administer the justice system fairly and effectively, and, since the late 70s, judges have participated in education and training programs that help them perform the challenging work of the courts.  During the Public Trust and Confidence Initiative, Chief Justice Harding also wanted to facilitate judges’ efforts to achieve the highest levels of integrity and professionalism; toward that end, the Sixth Circuit undertook to make the Judicial Ethics Advisory Opinions available online, and campaign conduct forums were introduced to teach judicial candidates about the requirements of Canon 7 of the Code of Judicial Conduct, which governs political conduct by judges and judicial candidates. 

At the end of his term, the chief justice was pleased to report that Florida’s State Courts System had “responded with vigor and creativity in meeting the challenge of strengthening public trust and confidence.” 

Branch-wide Communication Plans, 2000 and 2016

One of the facets of Chief Justice Harding’s Public Trust and Confidence Initiative was his reorganization, in 1999, of the Judicial Management Council’s Communication Committee. 

Comprising judges and other community leaders, the committee, co-chaired by Second DCA Judge Carolyn Fulmer and Dr. Navita Cummings James, professor of communication at
USF, was charged with making recommendations to the council and the supreme court on policies related to effective communication between the Florida State Courts System and the public.  Its most pressing responsibility was the development of a communication plan that would advance the communication-related goals and strategies identified in the branch’s long-range plan. 

In 2000, the committee released its Communication Plan for 2000 – 2006, which began by reminding readers of the two conditions that courts must meet in order to build public trust and confidence: to earn public trust, courts must do a good job, and to promote public trust, they must communicate effectively with the public.  Seeking to fulfill the second condition, the plan provided a framework for coordinating and organizing existing communication activities.  It also identified critical needs that the branch had to meet in order to sustain meaningful communication activities.

The plan—which was truly a strategic plan rather than an implementation or action plan—identified three strategic issues that the branch was encouraged to address: educate the public about the role and functions of the branch; provide information to help the public navigate the judicial system; and establish mechanisms to receive public input regarding court operations.  The plan also included a set of goals for each strategic issue as well as strategies for achieving the goals.

The plan prescribed a six-year term to allow sufficient time for completing the goals—with the suggestion that it be reviewed, revised, and updated on an as-needed basis.  However, not long after the plan was released, the judicial branch’s paramount activity necessarily became preparing for the implementation of Revision 7 (see below).  At the same time, the court system faced budget cuts that prompted a considerable scaling back on initiatives and activities.  In addition, after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the US, the branch had to focus on developing and implementing emergency preparedness measures.  As a result of these exigencies, the branch had to postpone the realization of some aspects of the communication plan. 

However, it was not forgotten.  Indeed, the first task of the Education and Outreach Workgroup of the current Judicial Management Council was to review and revise the communication plan, and Delivering Our Message: Court Communication Plan for the Judicial Branch of Florida was released in January 2016.  While the original plan concentrated largely on external communications, the revised plan substantially addresses internal communications as well.  The goal of this plan is to help the courts build relationships with a variety of partners; enhance public understanding of and support for the judicial branch; speak clearly and purposefully about the judicial branch; support open lines of communication; and communicate effectively using coordinated, strategic efforts. 

The plan is founded on four strategic issues that must be addressed over the long term in order to strengthen meaningful communication between the courts and key audiences (e.g., the public, court users, justice system partners, the executive and legislative branches, the media, and judges and court employees).  The four strategic areas are Enhancing Public Trust and Confidence, Speaking with One Voice, Improving Communication Methods, and Strengthening Internal Communication.  For each strategic issue, the plan outlines specific goals toward which the branch should aspire and suggests strategies for achieving these goals, emphasizing that each court has the discretion to determine how to incorporate the plan’s goals and strategies, based on local needs and resources.

Chief Justice Labarga has charged the designated public information officer of each court with putting the plan into effect on the local level.  Calling the implementation of the plan “one of the major legacies of my administration,” the chief justice welcomed the release of Delivering Our Message, heralding it as “another chapter in our rich history of access and transparency.” 

Implementation of Revision 7, 1999 – 2004

Proposed by Florida’s 1998 Constitution Revision Commission and approved by 67 percent of Florida voters in 1998, the revision of section 14 to Article V of the Florida Constitution—commonly called Revision 7—had two purposes: to relieve local governments of the increasing costs of subsidizing the trial courts and to ensure equity in court funding across each county in the state.  The successful implementation of Revision 7 became a critical priority for the branch, commanding most of the time and attention of several chief justices, trial court leadership, and OSCA staff.  It also launched the most concerted and comprehensive outreach, communication, and public education initiatives that the branch has ever mobilized. 

Called the greatest challenge to the Third Branch since the 1970s, when Florida’s modern state court system was created, Revision 7 was momentous, and preparing for its implementation required vision; the united effort of all three branches of government; collective spirit and determination; laborious cataloging and appraising of the costs associated with the operation of the trial courts; an ability to put aside differences; and the adoption of single focus, message, and voice within the court system.

The deadline for implementing the amendment was July 1, 2004.  Given the sweep of the foundational work that would have to be done, the branch began preparation soon after the amendment passed.  It took the first big step in January 1999, when then Chief Justice Harding appointed the Article V Funding Steering Committee to make recommendations to the supreme court on effecting the funding shift.  Among its accomplishments, the steering committee developed numerous Revision 7 implementation proposals for legislative consideration.  It also submitted, and the supreme court approved, a proposed rule creating the Trial Court Budget Commission; chaired by Judge Susan F. Schaeffer, Sixth Circuit, this commission was responsible for the Herculean tasks of inventorying the costs to county government of trial court operations, recommending state budget requests for the trial courts, and developing approaches to implement the shift to state funding.  Meanwhile, the Commission on Trial Court Performance and Accountability was directed to analyze the functioning of the trial courts (i.e., define the elements of the system) and determine strategies to optimize performance and provide accountability.

During Chief Justice Charles T. Wells’ administration (2000 – 2002), the branch began working closely with lawmakers to ensure the adoption of legislation that would establish the funding structures and mechanisms necessary for Revision 7.  In 2000, lawmakers crafted legislation providing a framework that delineated what the counties would continue to fund (i.e., facilities, technology, and security) and what the state would become responsible for funding (i.e., the elements that all state courts must have to handle cases promptly and equitably).  The chief justice assembled a team to provide information to judges and court personnel throughout the state and to seek their input into a plan to implement the changeover; he and the team visited each of the 20 circuits and met with all the chief judges and court administrators.  He also addressed a meeting hosted by the Florida Associated Press to inform the media of the importance of the issue to Florida residents and to solicit their assistance in helping the public understand its significance.  At the same time, OSCA’s Trial Court Funding Policy Section attended meetings of various court system constituencies to make sure everyone was made aware of Article V Funding Steering Committee decisions and legislative recommendations.

With only two years before implementation, when Harry Lee Anstead became chief justice (2002 – 2004), he advanced a full-scale communication initiative to build public awareness of Revision 7 and to maintain the people’s trust and confidence in the courts through this monumental transition.  The branch initiated several steps to meet this goal.  For instance, the chief justice established a Revision 7 Communications Advisory Committee, which was tasked with leading a consistent, statewide, community-based effort to educate policymakers, community leaders, justice system partners, and the general public about the crucial importance of Revision 7 and its impact on Florida’s trial courts and its communities.

The branch also established local circuit Revision 7 Communications and Education Advisory Groups, which informed community and business leaders, legal professionals, legislators, and the public about the critical role courts play in their communities and about the implications of Revision 7 at the local level.  To help advisory group members communicate a consistent and unified message, the branch developed a Justice for All Floridians educational toolkit, which included PowerPoint presentations, print materials, videos, talking points, and tips for working with the media.  The ultimate goal of this material was to move people to take action and become involved in this great challenge to Florida’s courts.

Also during this period, trial court chief judges and court administrators embraced the task of developing public awareness of Revision 7.  Together with the chief justice, they travelled around the state to help educate local leaders, editorial boards, and the news media about the complex issues of court funding.  Through these efforts, business leaders came to realize the extent to which the business community has a stake in the quest for adequate funding of the trial courts, and many rallied to support the judicial branch.  Meanwhile, news media explained to the public how Revision 7 would affect trial court operations.

On July 1, 2004, the amendment was implemented smoothly and successfully, and the supreme court held a Revision 7 Commemoration to celebrate this rite of passage.  As of this day, declared Justice Anstead, no longer does the Florida judiciary have a two-class trial court system, torn between the “have” and the “have not” courts.  Rather, thanks to the efforts of everyone involved—judges, court staff, The Florida Bar, the legislature, the governor, community and business leaders, the media, and the citizens of Florida themselves—the Florida State Courts System is now “one, uniform, high-quality class.”  Once again, branch leaders were compellingly reminded of the efficacy and the power of educating, communicating with, and seeking feedback from judges and court personnel, justice partners, and the variety of court-user communities—and of building widespread support for the courts.

Enhancing Judicial Branch’s Governance, 2009 – Present

The branch has long known that, to nurture trust and confidence, it must satisfy two conditions: it must do a good job, and it must encourage meaningful communication between the courts and the public.  However, the recent Governance Study, conducted from 2009 – 2010, underscored the recognition that, to do a good job, the branch also must recommit itself to cultivating opportunities for customary, meaningful communication within the court system itself. 

The Judicial Branch Governance Study Group was created in response to a matter raised in the court system’s second long-range plan.  Under long-range issue #1, Strengthening Governance and Independence, the first goal was, “The judicial branch will be governed in an effective and efficient manner.”  Of the three suggested strategies for achieving this goal, the first was is to “reform and strengthen the governance and policy development structures of the judicial branch.” 

Chief Justice Peggy Quince established the Judicial Branch Governance Study Group in 2009 to address this subject, and she appointed Justice Ricky Polston to chair the 11-member body (which comprised two supreme court justices, two DCA judges, three circuit court judges, two county court judges, and two Florida Bar members).  The study group was directed to perform an analysis of the branch’s current governance system and, based on its findings, to draft a report that included an examination of the structure and functions of the present governance system and an evaluation of its efficiency and effectiveness; recommendations for actions or activities that would improve the governance of the branch; and recommendations for any changes to the current structure that would improve the effective and efficient management of the branch.

To conduct research for this in-depth project, the study group adopted a three-pronged approach involving outreach to various constituencies, most of which were court-based.  The first prong consisted of in-person or phone interviews with more than 40 key court system experts (e.g., presiding and former justices, chairs of judicial conferences, chief judges, chairs of court committees, justice partners, and professional staff) about the governance practices currently in place.  The second prong entailed a web-based survey of a diverse sampling of 100 judges and 350 court staff about intra-branch communication.  For the third prong, Justice Polston solicited comments regarding collaboration with court leadership on policy development, rulemaking processes, and legislative/funding issues from groups with a stake in the court system’s governance structure (e.g., members of certain Florida Bar sections and rules committees, statewide business associations).

After the data were analyzed and synthesized, the study group worked fastidiously to craft its report—and one of the seven focuses of the report was communication within the branch.  The study group’s findings, backed by national research, indicate that rank and file judges and court staff are more likely to convey their ideas and concerns to the chief judge of their respective court rather than to the supreme court, the chief justice, or the state court administrator’s office.  Thus to foster “better communication at all levels throughout the branch,” the study group offered the following recommendation:

The chief justice shall meet on a regular basis with the chief judges of the district courts and the chief judges of the circuit courts to discuss and provide feedback for implementation of policies and practices that have statewide impact including, but not limited to, the judicial branch’s management, operation, strategic plan, legislative agenda and budget priorities. Such meetings shall, if practicable, occur at least quarterly and be conducted in-person.

The supreme court, underscoring its embrace of the need to encourage regular intra-branch communication, adopted this recommendation verbatim, amending the Florida Rules of Judicial Administration accordingly.  Indeed, in its opinion, the court uses the word communication eight times; refers to discuss mutual problems three times; and makes reference to discuss and provide feedback five times.

As this article has pointed out, the branch has often elicited feedback from judges and court staff for past undertakings.  Internal communication played an important role in the projects of the various judicial councils, for instance, and in the branch’s fairness and diversity initiatives, its implementation of Revision 7, and all three of its long-range planning processes.  But, in adopting the above rule amendment, the supreme court, for the first time, established formal mechanisms for regularly calling upon and attending to the many voices within the branch itself. 

This represents a significant step in the maturation of the Florida State Courts System.  Florida’s courts didn’t really begin their journey toward becoming a true system until 1972, with the passage of a constitutional amendment that introduced the structural unification of the courts; soon after came the shift toward administrative unification, which has helped the branch manage its resources more efficiently and effectively; and this was followed, in 2004, with the implementation of Revision 7, which initiated the move toward budgetary unification.  These three steps have helped the court system do a better job: it is better organized, more uniform, and able to provide more equitable treatment and services to Floridians all across the state. 

But to build a strong and effective system, an entity must also practice open communication.  By ritualizing opportunities for intra-branch dialog, the Florida State Courts System has been taking the next step in its evolution.  And while helping the branch become a more efficient and capable system, intra-branch communication should give rise to the added benefit of enhancing the public’s trust and confidence in the courts.

Why Does Public Trust and Confidence Matter?

To perform its role in our system of government, the judicial branch must have credibility.  For how can a court resolve disputes effectively, how can it ensure that its orders are respected, how can it be regarded as a rigorous deliberative body, and how can it marshal public support for court initiatives or for increased funding, for instance, if it does not have the public’s trust and confidence? 

In a speech given before the 1999 national convention on Public Trust and Confidence in the Judicial System, former US Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor eloquently captured the reasons—and the methods—for strengthening and maintaining the trust of the people:

As judges, court administrators and attorneys, we all rely on public confidence and trust to give the courts’ decisions their force.  We don’t have standing armies to enforce opinions, we rely on the confidence of the public in the correctness of those decisions.  That’s why we have to be aware of public opinions and of attitudes toward our system of justice, and it is why we must try to keep and build that trust.  We can do it by working to create a just society.  The justice system must provide for the fair, prompt and proper resolution of the conflicts brought to it, and it must also work to help the public see what the system is doing and how it is being done.

As this article has chronicled, Florida’s court system has long taken seriously this responsibility, committing itself to the ongoing endeavor of holding safe the public’s trust.  For the judicial branch recognizes that it cannot fulfill its constitutional duty without the trust and confidence of the people it serves.