History of Court Processes, Programs, and Initiatives

Reflections on Changes in Court Administration Since 1972: In Celebration of OSCA’s 40th Birthday

In 1972, more than two-thirds of Florida voters approved reforms to Article V of the state constitution that sought to bring greater consistency and uniformity to the judicial branch.  The ultimate goal of these reforms was to ensure that litigants receive similar treatment under Florida law, regardless of where they live.  The 1972 constitutional revision had seismic effects on the judicial branch: outcomes included the reorganization of Florida’s 16 different types of trial courts into a two-tier system of 20 circuit and 67 county courts; the institution of a series of requirements designed to ensure that judges would be qualified and impartial; and the requirement that all judges’ salaries be paid by the state, rather than by local governments.  Because it simplified and consolidated the structure of the trial courts, creating uniform jurisdictions with clean geographic divisions, this Article V rewrite is generally celebrated for instigating the process of unifying and shaping what we now know as the Florida State Courts System. 

Less known, perhaps, is that these reforms also defined clear lines of administrative authority and responsibility in the judicial branch.  Specifically, the Article V revision designated the chief justice as the chief administrative officer of the entire court system, and it created the position of chief judge, making the chief judge responsible for the administrative supervision of his or her court.

But even back then, when Florida was, in many ways, far simpler and more rustic than it is today, the compass of the branch’s administrative responsibilities was prodigious, far too sweeping to be accomplished by a single sitting member of the state’s highest court.  So, to serve the chief justice in carrying out these responsibilities, the supreme court established the position of the state courts administrator.  The initial focus of the state courts administrator’s office was handling administrative matters for the appellate courts and developing a uniform case reporting system to glean information about activities of the judiciary.  Eventually, the duties of the Office of the State Courts Administrator (OSCA) grew to include budgetary, intergovernmental, statistical, technological, educational, programmatic, and legal responsibilities related to the operations of, as well as ministerial duties for, the state courts. 

For many years, the DCAs and trial courts have also had professional court administrators: each of the 20 circuits has a trial court administrator (TCA) who assists the chief judge in his or her role as the administrative supervisor of the circuit and county courts, and each of the five DCAs has a marshal, a constitutional officer under Article V who assists the chief judge in implementing administrative policy.  Because court administrators and their staff attend to the effectiveness and efficiency of court operations, judges are able to concentrate on adjudicatory, rather than administrative, tasks.

In 2012, OSCA turned 40 years old.  Marking this milestone, this article looks back at some of the more pronounced and interesting changes that have transformed court administration in Florida over the years.  The article is based on the reflections of seven people who, since the mid-80s, have held court administrative positions in various courts in the state (they will be introduced later in the story).  Taken together, their anecdotes and musings create a colorful, richly-textured panorama of court administration past and present.

Within the last 30 years, three transformations have been so profound and far-reaching that all seven interviewees discussed them at length: the striking changes the courts have encountered, and to which they have had to adapt, over the years; the advances propelled by technology; and the changes effected by the passage of Revision 7. 

The Courts Grow Up

One of the first points all seven interviewees mentioned was how dramatically the court system has grown in nearly three decades.  When they first began their work with the branch, courts did not yet have court interpreters, trial court law clerks, staff attorneys, case managers, or hearing officers, for instance.  And although some neighborhoods had citizen dispute settlement centers, court-based mediation hadn’t yet transformed the court system.  No one gave much thought to emergency management or strategic planning or performance and accountability in those days.  –Or to specialized dockets: teen court, drug court, mental health court, veterans court, elder court, and business court weren’t on the radar yet.  Most everything about the branch was less variegated back then.  For instance, in the mid-80s, the state had just more than half the current number of  judges—but the faces of justice were not particularly diverse: most judges were white, middle-aged males (the racial and ethnic bias study, the gender bias study, and the ADA-inspired court facilities survey had not been conceived yet). 

Over time, Florida’s population burgeoned and diversified, and its communities became more interdependent.  Accordingly, court workloads increased, as did the complexity of the social and legal issues that came before the courts; simultaneously, people’s expectations of the courts were heightening significantly.  These were among the factors that propelled the need for professional court management, emphasized the interviewees.  Administrative demands were becoming increasingly rarified and specialized, making it impossible for just a few people to continue doing all the administrative work of a court.  For instance, in the 80s, to be a capable TCA, one had to be a jack of all trades who could, on his or her own, perform most all the circuit’s administrative functions—e.g., finance and accounting, budgeting, personnel, technology, facilities management.  But as the work of the courts became increasingly complex, court administrators had to hire people with specific expertise in these fields.  One TCA remembers that, in 1985, his circuit had 14 circuit and eight county judges, and he and his office staff of three were able to complete the various administrative duties; now, for a population that’s almost doubled, the circuit has 28 circuit and 12 county court judges, and it takes 138 court staff to perform all the circuit’s administrative responsibilities.  The level of professionalism of every aspect of court administration, from court interpreters to law clerks, has changed dramatically, a former TCA noted: “Court administration has undergone a real growing up,” she reflected. 

Technological Revolutions

Contemplating the technological changes they’d witnessed over the years, interviewees chuckled over the primitive tools they used to have to rely on to do their jobs.  In the mid-80s, for instance, all of OSCA—which employed around 60 people then—had only four telephone lines; calls came in to a receptionist, who operated the switchboard and routed the calls to the appropriate person.  A big old clunky rotary phone sat on everyone’s desk.  If someone needed to make a call, he or she would have to watch the lights on the phone to see when a line became available.  And when calls came in while people were away from their desks, they’d return to find a passel of “while you were out” messages stuck to their door; everyone had a spindle on his/her desk for stashing these message slips.  Also, for every long distance call people made—and, when offices eventually got fax machines, for every fax people sent—they had to fill out a log book, listing the date, the phone (or fax) number, and the reason for the call—“a time-consuming, antiquated system,” everyone agreed.

The phones weren’t the only dinosaurs in court administrative offices.  Most offices had only one copier for everyone who worked there.  OSCA had what was described as “a single, humongous 3M copier that had already made over a million copies in 1988.”  As one interviewee recalled, if she had a big copy job, she had to reserve time on the machine.  

Naturally, very few people had computers back then—and those who had them usually had to share them; and what computers were able to do was rather limited.  The sorts of tasks that we hardly think about anymore because they are now automated—like tracking bills, checking case citations, administering attendance and leave, advertising jobs, doing instant criminal background checks—were often painfully laborious manual processes that took huge chunks of time to accomplish.  And of course it goes without saying that email wasn’t even in gestation back then, prompting everyone to remark on the ease with which we now can access information and communicate with one another.  But, as one interviewee pointed out, because she could never get instant information, data, or responses to her questions in those days, the pace of work, of life, was necessarily slower and more measured.  Nonetheless, all the interviewees agreed that they can do many aspects of their jobs far more easily now, given the colossal advances in the equipment and tools that are available.    

Revision 7

The third matter that all seven interviewees mentioned was the revision of section 14 to Article V of the Florida Constitution—commonly called Revision 7—and the changes that followed in its wake.  Passed by voters in 1998 and implemented in 2004, Revision 7 brought about budgetary unification in Florida’s courts.  Since the 1972 Article V overhaul, the state had been funding the salaries of judges and their assistants, but the counties were paying most of the other costs of running the court system, which often meant substantial discrepancies in funding and services between one county and another.   Revision 7 was designed to relieve local governments of the increasing costs of subsidizing the trial courts and to ensure equity in court funding for each county—thereby providing all Floridians with access to the same essential trial court services, regardless of where in the state they reside. 

Interviewees remarked that Revision 7 significantly helped foster the system aspect of the Florida State Court System—and helped court personnel begin seeing themselves as part of that system.  As several pointed out, we’re still not fully unified—but all agreed that we’re considerably more unified now than we were before the passage of this constitutional amendment.  Because of this unification, the branch is better able to speak with a clear and consistent voice and can develop statewide policies in a more thoughtful and deliberate manner.  This unification also has made it possible to embark on a range of ambitious statewide projects, like the development of an electronic courts structure. 

Other Changes

In addition to the three major metamorphosing issues discussed above, each interviewee also had observations about other, less dramatic changes they’d noticed over the years. 

Nick Sudzina, who has been the TCA with the Tenth Circuit since 1985, talked about the significant changes in the jobs of everyone in the court system, both judges and court personnel.  When he first began working in the courts, judges actually did some of the administrative work, like case management, themselves—“but that was before the courts had to deal with this amount and scope and complexity of litigation,” he explained.  He also described some of the ways TCA responsibilities have evolved over time: “This workplace is always changing, so the job of TCA has to keep changing with it.  Now, TCAs need a background in areas like judicial administration, court management, managerial skills, and communications.” Also different now is “the increasing presence of the news media; they seem to be watching government closely, especially the courts because of the funding dilemma.”  This reminded him of an aspect of his job that has not changed: “Funding is always a challenge,” he conceded.  Another unchanging feature is that his job is “always rewarding: I learn something new each day.  The job is always challenging, but it’s always a pleasure to come to work.”

Like job responsibilities, court programs have also changed considerably.  Susan Leseman began working at OSCA in 1985, first as a program attorney for what is now called the Court Education Section and then as the chief of Court Education; she then became the managing attorney for OSCA’s Publications Unit.  Over the years, she’s seen great changes in the court education programs—which recently began including programs for court personnel too: “The education programs have grown to meet the complexities of the jobs that judges and court personnel do,” she explained.  For example, in the early 80s, the agenda for the circuit judges program had a criminal and a civil track; now, there are also tracks for juvenile, family, probate/guardianship, and general interest, such as evidence.  In addition, new programs had to be developed to meet the expanding educational needs of judges, so now there’s a pre-bench program, a program for new appellate judges, the Advanced Judicial Studies program, and distance learning programs.  “We have moved from chalkboards to overhead projectors to PowerPoint to LCD projectors to web-based programs—a huge technological leap that better facilitates learning,” she added.  Because her unit coordinated and staffed most of the programs, she often had to travel, and she remembers when the per diem allowances were a mere $1.50 for breakfast, $3 for lunch, and $6 for dinner; the mileage reimbursement was only six cents per mile.  “You always lost money when you travelled,” she observed.

Although state money has almost always been constrained, circuits were often able to find other sources of funding for cutting-edge programs.  Tom Long was the TCA at the Sixteenth Circuit from 1984 – 1989 and then at the Second Circuit from 1989 – 1999; following that, he became the OSCA general services manager until he retired in 2011.  For him, a big difference between his early days in court administration and now is that circuits used to have access to local grant money, which made it possible for courts to be highly pioneering.  Grant money supported breakthroughs like the pretrial release program, management information systems technology, neighborhood justice centers, and some specialized court dockets.  “What was innovative back then is standard now,” he commented.  But now it’s much harder to get grant money, “So the progressive, innovative circuits are finding it hard to fund good concepts.”  As a result, “Innovation is more likely to come out of court committees; it’s more likely to originate in Tallahassee, not at the circuit level.”

However, some of these Tallahassee-based innovations have definitely been momentous.  Debbie Howells, who has been with OSCA since 1988, is the executive assistant for the state courts administrator.  The state has undergone many changes since she first began working for the courts, when “Florida was still wild and woolly and rough and loosely-populated.”  And the court system has grown to accommodate those changes.  She called attention to two in particular: the branch’s increasing focus on intergovernmental relations and the growing cooperation between the court system and the clerks, who have recently been working together on projects like funding stabilization, e-filing, and the e-portal.  But she also emphasized that some things haven’t changed.  For example, in all these years, “Florida’s court system continues to be a trailblazer, a leader, nationally.”  Florida was a trailblazer with mediation, she remarked, and it was also “the first state to engage in a study about the economic impact on the state’s economy of an under-funded court system.”  So, even with all its changes, “Florida continues to be resourceful and creative.”

David Pepper also brought up the court system’s relatively new emphasis on intergovernmental relations.  Dr. Pepper, who had several positions with OSCA’s Personnel Services beginning in 1987 (personnel manager, the chief of Personnel Services, and court operations consultant), called attention to the amount of time and energy that now goes into addressing legislative affairs as they affect the judicial branch.  Years ago, “The court system generally got the resources it needed,” and only the state courts administrator and his deputies played a role in tracking legislation and meeting with lawmakers and their staff.  “But with so much competition now for limited state resources, the courts have had to get more involved in the process,” he explained:  now, the justices, chief judges, the two budget commissions, and other judicial leaders participate; OSCA has an Office of Intergovernmental and Community Affairs; and most all of OSCA is involved in what has truly become a “team effort.”  Another significant change he noted is that “various employee relations issues are in the forefront now”—like sensitivity to diversity, sexual harassment, and ADA compliance.

Broadly speaking, all the interviewees expounded on the court system’s growing professionalism, in one way or another—and Theresa Westerfield addressed it very emphatically.  Ms Westerfield was with the Sixteenth Circuit from 1988 – 2005, first as the first director of the Pretrial Release Program and then as the TCA; then she moved to Tallahassee, first serving as the OSCA budget administrator and then as the chief of Personnel Services.  She emphasized the “high level of professionalism I now see in every element of the court system,” gesturing toward court interpreters as an example.  When she was TCA, if a party needed a Spanish language court interpreter, “you just grabbed whoever you could grab because there were no court interpreters.”  Also, back then, she recalled, “Court reporters were like judicial assistants in that they were assigned to a judge, not a courtroom,” and they got paid by the transcript page—“The more they did, the more they earned,” she explained.  “Then, in about 1995, they became court employees, and that was a big deal; it really changed their relationship with the court,” she reflected.  Today’s standards are truly high, she stressed—especially when compared to some past informalities: when she was in Key West, for example, “lawyers didn’t even have to wear socks to court,” she playfully quipped (of course, she did add that that was probably only true in Key West).

Court facilities have also become more formal and more professionally outfitted over time.  Glen Rubin was the OSCA purchasing director from 1984 – 1995 and was the marshal with the Fourth DCA after that.  He remembers when it was perfectly acceptable to smoke in the supreme court building—and when brass spittoons were among the items in the property inventory.  He was there when the first woman was appointed to the supreme court in 1985: like the other justices, Justice Rosemary Barkett had her chambers on the top floor.  But that floor only had a men’s room; in those days, women—judicial assistants and some of the law clerks—had to go downstairs for a restroom.  Building personnel quickly “had to figure out how to get a bathroom for Justice Barkett.”  But one of the most significant changes over the years was the adoption of security features for the building.  At first, “The building had no metal detectors or scanners: anyone could walk in.”  There were only two security guards, one at the front entrance and one at a side entrance; the rest of the entrances—and there were many—were unsecured.  (Back then, he added, to be a security guard, “The only requirements were a sixth grade education and the ability to follow directions.”)  This conspicuous security lack wasn’t addressed until a rather controversial supreme court decision led to death threats against some of the justices.

In this impressive vista of changes that the interviewees shared—some of the memories humorous, some astonishing, some instructive, some nostalgia-provoking—one other point came up again and again.  Over the last few decades, the court system has definitely become more open, more transparent, more accessible—think about cameras in the courtroom, for instance, and about the astronomic amount of information available on each court’s website.  Paradoxically, however, it has also become, to an extent, more closed off, less personal, and less intimate, they remarked.  While praising the ease and speed of communication, they also bemoaned the disintegration of social contact, of connections, of warmth.  That reality seemed to give everyone pause for thought....   

Musings on the Early Years of Technology in the Courts (as recounted by two longstanding OSCA employees)

Florida’s Office of the State Courts Administrator (OSCA) was created in 1972 to assist the chief justice in carrying out his or her responsibilities as the chief administrative officer of the judicial branch.  Since then, OSCA, housed in the supreme court building, has performed and overseen many of the administrative functions necessary to facilitate the smooth and efficient operation of the court system—which includes tasks like preparing the branch budget requests to the legislature, collecting and analyzing data relevant to court operations, coordinating judicial educational programs, and furnishing technical support for the courts [see the Florida Rules of Judicial Administration 2.205(e)].

In its earliest days, OSCA was a tiny entity, consisting of the court administrator, his administrative assistant, his executive secretary, a judicial planning and grants coordinator, and his secretary.  In addition to these five employees, OSCA also loosely included a group of grant-funded employees who, at an off-site location, collected and analyzed the data used to prepare the branch’s operating budget and to project the need for additional judges.   

Over the years, OSCA—and, indeed, Florida’s entire court system—have undergone a profusion of metamorphoses.  When on the verge of retirement after 36 years with OSCA—her last 24 with Information Systems Services (ISS)—Merica Granger agreed to share memories of some of the more dramatic of these (r)evolutions, especially those in court technology.  Spurring her memory, and adding some lively anecdotes of his own, was co-worker and friend Clyde Conrad, who started working at OSCA in 1985 as the ISS Applications Development Manager.

In the early 70s—and for a good number of years after that—office technology was decisively more humble than it is now.  In 1973, when Ms Granger was hired as secretary to the judicial planning and grants coordinator, her most high-tech piece of equipment was “just a typewriter—and not even a self-correcting one,” she marveled; “We used carbon paper to make copies.”  For administrative orders and letters, judicial assistants had a rather primitive, mainframe-based word processing system called the Automated Text Management System, or ATMS; as Ms Granger recalled, “You slipped in a card, which got sucked into the machine; typed your letter; and saved it on the card.”  Because documents could be saved, judicial assistants could print multiple copies—and additional copies at any time.  However, although the cards could be overwritten, they couldn’t be modified, so if a document needed any changes, it had to be retyped from scratch.  Also, Mr. Conrad added, no more than seven people could use the ATMS at any given time, so it was somewhat limited.  He described the ATMS as “cryptic” and “cumbersome”—but “high tech for back then, and a big step up from typewriters with carbon copies!” 

Archaic as well was the building’s phone system.  When he was hired in 1985, Mr. Conrad noted, OSCA had one phone system with four or five lines (the entire court administrator’s office had one phone number with lots of extensions).  “The phone was answered in the court administrator’s office, and an intercom let you know if the call was for you.”

Over time, however, the number of court cases mounted; the classification of crimes expanded; the courts frequently had to implement new, mandatory criminal procedural requirements; and legal issues were becoming increasingly complex.  In order to continue managing court resources efficiently and effectively, OSCA’s administrative functions needed to grow.  In the mid-80s, under the leadership of State Courts Administrator Ken Palmer, OSCA began evolving, becoming partitioned into various divisions to better address the branch’s burgeoning administrative responsibilities.  This is when Ms Granger was promoted to administrative assistant for ISS (then called the Information Systems Division, or ISD).  And this is also when she finally got her first self-correcting typewriter, she triumphantly announced.  At the time, ISD provided technology support to the supreme court, OSCA, and the five DCAs, and it consisted of four programmers, a data entry person, two time and study analysts, Ms Granger, and Mr. Conrad. 

It was also about this time, 1985 – 1986, that technology in the courts began morphing at a feverish pace.  Mr. Conrad’s first responsibility with ISD was “to get the DCAs automated with computers” that were not mainframe-based—which he described as a “very bold change” over which “huge battles” were waged, in part because there was “major resistance” to this new technology.  ISD evaluated the word processors from four different companies and finally selected Burroughs (which later became Unysis) “because it gave us more disk space and also had connectivity that allowed a judge’s suite of people to be able to work from a central box that the whole court worked from”—which meant that electronic documents could be shared for the first time.  Burroughs was also unique because, if the main CPU went down, the desktop machines could be rebooted, and everyone in the judge’s suite could continue to work from his or her location.  Even though, at the time, only the DCAs were scheduled to get these computers, he described this change as “so big that the supreme court had to get involved.”  ISD had to go before the Appellate Technology Committee and the Supreme Court Technology Board to justify the selection of Burroughs.  “It was a major, major undertaking to get the first court up and running,” he ruminated.      

Soon thereafter, Ms Granger recalled, the supreme court and OSCA adopted the Burroughs computers, but only the secretaries and division chiefs were given one at first (even though she worked in ISD, she didn’t get a computer until the late 1980s).  She remembers the Burroughs as having a very small screen; it took 5.25 inch floppies—and ate up an enormous amount of desk space.  On top of that, “It was definitely not user-friendly: all the parameters for letters and administrative orders had to be changed, and everything was in code; it was a big challenge to get used to,” she emphasized.  “The technology was evolving so quickly, and it created a lot of trauma for everyone,” Mr. Conrad added.  Not surprisingly, many judges and court employees were resistant: they were anxious about this alien technology and wary of anything that threatened to eradicate face-to-face interaction; many had never developed keyboarding skills; and they lacked computer training.  To try to allay people’s unease, Mr. Conrad reminisced, “training was the big emphasis in ISD back then.  ISD put in the computers; did training classes for all the judicial assistants and law interns; brought in vendors to do classes.”  In spite of some reluctance to embrace the computer age, Florida’s courts truly were “pioneers,” he reflected, because the judicial branch “began using this new technology before the other branches—and they did it with very little money.”

Since then, the court system has witnessed a number of momentous computer-related shifts, Mr. Conrad explained.  With the invasion of the world of Windows in the early 90s came the use of the mouse and the ability to open several documents at once, making it desirable for the courts to move to a Windows environment.  So, in the early 90s, the courts adopted the Digital Equipment Corp operating system.  With this switch to Windows, the courts shifted to Corel WordPerfect, which required a massive conversion of all court documents—“and lots of new training classes,” Ms Granger and Mr. Conrad pronounced. “By now,” they added, “everybody had a word processor on their desk, whether they wanted it or not.”  (Quite a few OSCA employees confessed to having fastidiously ignored their computers for close to a year, letting the still-boxed, newfangled devices take up desk-space and collect dust—until a directive came from above ordering them to unpack and begin using them.) 

The next move, in the mid-90s, was to the Intergraph, which used the same Windows software; these computers had “nice, fast workstations and good graphics,” recollected Mr. Conrad.  At this point, email (the courts had Novell at the time) and Internet access were available—but “No one really knew what to do with them back then,” Mr. Conrad chuckled.   Then in 2003 – 04 came another upgrade, to Dell computers, and with that, the switch from WordPerfect to Word for word processing and from Novell to Outlook for email.  Which brings us to the present—the fairly recent switch to Windows 8.1, the use of videoconferencing, the embrace of e-filing.  But, as Mr. Conrad underscored, though almost “Everybody loves their computers, email, and Internet now, they still love their paper,” and he wondered whether the court system would ever be able to do away with paper altogether. 

On the whole, Ms Granger concluded, ISS, and OSCA, have had “an amazing journey….It’s never been boring because every day brought something new.”  And the future beckons with even more breathtaking novelties.  Mr. Conrad anticipates technology offering shared workspaces and collaboration functions that readily enable users to manage various document versions and document approvals.  He also imagines that working remotely will soon become far easier for judges and court personnel: home monitors will have big screens, and cameras will be connected to everyone’s computers, so interaction will be immediate and personal, even if not in-person.  All things considered, it seems inevitable that this “amazing journey” will long continue….  

A Glimpse into the History of Florida’s Supreme Court Buildings Through the Whitfield Window

In early November 2012, the Florida Supreme Court became the new home of an evocative historic treasure: a curved-glass window that, until 1978, adorned Florida’s first Supreme Court Building.  Thanks to a generous donation from the Florida Supreme Court Historical Society, this elegant window, etched with the official supreme court seal, is now permanently exhibited in a handsome, custom-built mahogany display case in the Lawyer’s Lounge. 

While admiring this gift in the normally hushed composure of the Lawyer’s Lounge, one may find oneself fancifully journeying back in time to supreme court venues of bygone days.  For these fortunate time-travelers, the window is more than merely a lovely, framed and glazed aperture between interior and exterior worlds—indeed, it becomes a portal to the past, inspiring curiosity about the earlier settings in which the justices resolved disputes....

The state of Florida, previously a US territory, was admitted to the Union in 1845, and its first constitution created the supreme court—but did not give it any justices.  To carry out the function of justices, the legislature vested some judges in the circuit courts with the power to serve as supreme court justices.  At the time, Florida had four circuits, and four circuit judges were given the dual role.  Their job was particularly grueling because they were obligated to “ride circuit”—that is, they had to make frequent journeys across the state (by horse or carriage) to hear cases in various major cities.

Tallahassee has been the capital city since 1824 (three years after Florida was ceded to the US by Spain).  And when the justices were in session in Tallahassee, they convened in an area provided by the legislature, in a building now referred to as the Historic Capitol or the Old Capitol.  Their meeting space, the “supreme court room,” was a modest, rustic room lined with utilitarian bookshelves and flanked by two simple wood fireplaces.  Indeed, justices had to share an office until 1891, when a small area of the capitol lobby was partitioned to give each one some private space.  In 1902, when the building underwent significant reconstruction and expansion, the justices were given a larger space in which to hold session, as well as new offices.  A visit to the Old Capitol is a treat for anyone interested in seeing the supreme court’s early working quarters: in the late 1980s, after the new capitol was built, the old building was restored to its 1902 appearance; the reconstituted supreme court room includes many of its original furnishings, including the tables, railings, gates, portraits, and the justices bench.

Circuit court judges served as justices until 1851, when a constitutional amendment provided that the supreme court have its own justices: one chief justice and two associate justices (the number was increased to six in 1902, and the court was expanded to its current number, seven justices, in 1940).  Between 1852 and 1868, one term per year was held in each of the four circuits—in Tallahassee, Marianna, Jacksonville, and Tampa—so, naturally, justices were still travelling.  They remained itinerant until 1868, when a new constitution mandated that the justices meet exclusively “at the seat of government,” Tallahassee.   

Meanwhile, through all these years, when the justices were in Tallahassee, they were holding court in their room in the Capitol Building.  Finally, in 1912, a building was constructed expressly for the supreme court—on Monroe Street, a block south of the Old Capitol.  This was a momentous step because, from the first days of statehood, all of Florida’s state government had been housed together in the Capitol Building—so the judiciary became the first branch to have its own separate space.  The Supreme Court Building became the second state government building to be erected in Tallahassee.  This is also the building that was adorned with the stately, curved-glass window that is now resettled in the Lawyer’s Lounge.

In addition to the supreme court, the new building housed the Florida Railroad Commission as well as the court’s library—an institution that garnered much praise in its day: “Agents for law book companies who have visited the supreme court library here in the magnificent state supreme court and railroad commission building are unanimous in the declaration that Florida has the best library of law in Southern states, surpassing many of the supreme court libraries of the Northern and Western states and comparing favorably with any in the United States,”  a journalist wrote in 1917 (see Walter W. Manley’s Supreme Court of Florida and Its Predecessor Courts, 1821 – 1917). 

The court remained in that building until 1949, when it moved to a new—and the current—Supreme Court Building, a few blocks away.  In 1952, the court’s prior abode was renamed the Whitfield Building, after Justice James B. Whitfield—the state’s 33rd justice, who ended up being the second-longest sitting justice in Florida history (he served on the court for 39 years; only Justice William Glenn Terrell served longer, with 41 years on the bench). 

Unfortunately, to make room for the construction of the Senate Office Building, the Whitfield Building was demolished in 1978.  Auspiciously, however, the curved-glass window etched with the supreme court seal was preserved.  Sold to a private collector before the building was razed, it lived in obscurity until 2002, when it was donated to the Florida Supreme Court Historical Society.  The largesse of the society made it possible for this window, this portal to the past, to return to its home, the highest court in Florida. 

The supreme court is open Mondays through Fridays, 8 AM to 5 PM (excluding holidays).  Visitors to Tallahassee are welcome to drop by the supreme court to view the window—and the other historic gems safeguarded by the court’s library and archives.