2014 Court News Events
Chief Justice Labarga Launches Florida Access to Civil Justice Initiative
by Beth Schwartz
With the flourish of his pen, on Monday, November 24, Chief Justice Labarga signed an administrative order that created the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice. The ceremony, which took place in the Florida Supreme Court rotunda, formalized the goal he announced during his Passing of the Gavel ceremony on June 30, to make justice more accessible to all Floridians. The Florida Access to Civil Justice Initiative is the major initiative of Chief Justice Labarga’s two-year administration.
The 27-member Commission has been charged with studying the unmet civil legal needs of disadvantaged, low-income, and moderate-income Floridians. Among other considerations, members will look at improving existing legal programs, developing solutions based on new technology, and exploring other ways to meet the needs of Floridians caught in the current civil legal services gap.
In his remarks, the chief justice explained that “Florida’s Commission on Access to Civil Justice will bring together the three branches of government, the Bar, civil legal aid providers, the business community, and other well-known stakeholders in a coordinated effort to identify and remove these economic barriers to civil justice.” He concluded by saying, “This is the right thing to do in Florida, for what is the use in having a great civil justice system if a large segment of our population do not have access to it?”
The ceremony, which was open to the public, was broadcast live on the court’s Gavel to Gavel video portal, on the Florida Channel, and via the WFSU Florida Transponder satellite downlink for video broadcasters.
flcourts.org named a “2014 Top 10 Court Websites Award Winner”
by Beth Schwartz
In July, the Florida Office of the State Courts Administrator received a 2014 Top 10 Court Websites Award from the Forum on the Advancement of Court Technology (FACT), a special committee of the National Association for Court Management. FACT, which was founded in 1989, is a consortium of private-sector companies and court representatives that strives “to improve the quality of justice through communication between those who develop and provide technology products and those who manage courts.” The award was presented during NACM’s annual meeting, held in late July in Scottsdale, Arizona.
A panel of five judges—consisting of court managers and business leaders with expertise in justice issues—made the final selection based on five criteria:
- Access to public records
- User interface (e.g., ease of navigation, use of multimedia, readability)
- Accessibility (e.g., screen reader access, text captions for video, swift navigability requiring minimal mouse clicks)
- Interactive capabilities (e.g., downloadable and/or fillable court forms, subscription services for email/text notifications)
- Overall impression.
Commending OSCA’s efforts “to improve access to justice and efficiencies to the court’s business through the use of technology,” the judges praised the “well organized navigation” of the flcourts site and described it as “visually appealing.”
Earlier this year, flcourts.org underwent a dramatic redesign. The web team that facilitated this ambitious project aimed to give the website a more contemporary look and to reorganize the content to make it more navigable and useful to the various audiences that visit the site. Launched in January 2014, the redesigned site includes several new features—among them, an “image slider” that invites visitors to learn about current court innovations across the state and about courts, and court people, in the news; also new is a Court Locator, which enables people to find, and get directions for, the state courthouse they are seeking; another addition is a comprehensive Topics A – Z. More visitor-centered and more accessible, both to users of auxiliary aids and to users with mobile devices, the remodeled site is designed to be a valuable resource to judges, court employees, court system partners, court users, the media, and others seeking information about Florida’s courts. The FACT award is a much-appreciated honor, for it suggests that OSCA’s efforts are indeed hitting their mark.
Florida State Courts System Employees Receive Productivity Awards
by Beth Schwartz
Florida Taxwatch’s 2014 Prudential Productivity Awards honor 432 individuals and teams of state government employees throughout Florida for creating and implementing solutions and productivity improvements worth $558 million in cost savings and cost avoidances. Among the recipients of this year’s awards are the following state courts system individuals and teams:
- Fred Buhl, court technology officer with the Eighth Judicial Circuit, was awarded a certificate of commendation for developing OpenCourt, a digital court recording system that enables the circuit to make high-quality audio and video recordings of court events without the high cost of commercial software. Until recently, the circuit was using a commercial system but lacked the funding to maintain or replace it. According to Mr. Buhl, “necessity (mixed with a little hubris)” inspired him to build his own system using open source programs (i.e., programs whose source code is available and free to the general public for use and/or modification from its original design). The circuit hopes to release OpenCourt as open source software so that other courts can make use of it.
- The Sixth Judicial Circuit’s Fiscal Team—which includes Rob Snyder, Justin Thom, Tanja Fitzgerald, Mary Kris Lichtenberg, Inass Riyad, Stephanie LoBalbo, Chris Hover, and Susan Vega—was awarded a certificate of commendation for implementing four new programs that are resulting in tangible savings in the circuit’s expense budget, significant increases in its cost recovery account, and reductions in the amount or paperwork it processes. To achieve these goals, the Fiscal Team developed a “co-op” system of ordering supplies; implemented stringent cost-recovery standards; designed a strategy for reducing the number of invoices that must be processed, audited, and signed; and introduced a plan for reducing the costs associated with printing, paper consumption, and off-site storage.
- The Fifteenth Judicial Circuit’s Foreclosure Case Management Team—which includes Judge Peter D. Blanc, Judge Diana Lewis, Judge Robin Rosenberg, Devon Mugridge, and Michelle Spangenberg—was awarded a certificate of commendation for developing a differentiated case management plan that is significantly reducing the volume of pending foreclosure cases while ensuring that every litigant receives procedural due process and equal protection. In addition to establishing a docket control policy and uniform trial procedures, the differentiated case management plan requires parties to provide the court with a current service list; pre-addressed, postage-paid mailing envelopes for the entire service list; and a fully-executed case status form (the information included in the form enables the court to determine readily to which track cases should be assigned: uncontested, contested, or highly contested). These measures support the circuit’s efforts to manage its foreclosure dockets with greater efficiency.
- The Fifteenth Judicial Circuit’s Juvenile Division Team—which includes now-retired Judge Karen Martin, Cristy Altaro, and William Hutchings—was awarded a plaque for implementing a program that increases the appearance rates for juvenile defendants, thereby reducing delays in court processing, the number of warrants issued, and the utilization of detention beds. In short, when a court hearing is approaching, a juvenile case manager contacts the juvenile and his/her family to ensure that they are aware of the hearing; the case manager also updates the court and the clerk on the juvenile’s status and his/her contact information, to ensure the accuracy of official records. The program, which was developed in partnership with the local Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative, has improved internal operations and expedited judicial case processing while reducing the number of defendants who fail to appear for court—and the associated costs therewith.
- OSCA Dispute Resolution Center’s Renewal Automation Team—which includes Kimberly Kosch, Penni Griffith, Dawn Burlison, Sherry Waites, Ramon Waters, and Jennifer Gray—was awarded a certificate of commendation for automating the mediator renewal process. Before implementing this process, Dispute Resolution Center staff had to print and mail forms, instructions, and rules to every mediator whose certification was coming up for renewal (for 200 mediators per month, on average). With nearly 6,500 certified mediators across the state—each of whom has to renew certification every two years—the process had come to be both costly and time-consuming. The team was established to develop a mechanism for providing all renewal materials electronically, via email and the internet. The renewal process has been fully automated and paper-free since January 1, 2013, and both the certified mediators and the state are reaping benefits: mediators now have access to all renewal materials 24/7—and can print only those materials they need; and the state is saving human and fiscal processing costs—and, in using considerably less paper and toner, is also having a positive environmental impact.
The Statewide Guardian ad Litem Program Announces
Judge Cindy Lederman Has Been Awarded
The 2014 National CASA Judge of the Year Award
[Tallahassee, Florida] Alan Abramowitz, Executive Director of the Statewide Guardian ad Litem (GAL) Program, announced today that Judge Cindy S. Lederman, Miami-Dade Juvenile Court Judge, was named the 2014 National CASA Judge of the Year. The National CASA Association is a network of 933 programs that recruit, train and support volunteers to represent the best interests of abused and neglected children in the courtroom and other settings
In making the announcement Abramowitz stated, “Judge Lederman is a passionate supporter of the GAL Program and believes that every child in the dependency system should have a voice. Judge Lederman attends every GAL event, never missing an opportunity to compliment, encourage and empower our GAL volunteers. Local guardians love being in her courtroom because she not only validates the importance of what they do but also lets them know they are the critical eyes and ears of the court. Whenever newly-appointed judges come to dependency court, she makes a point of stressing the value and importance of the GAL Program and the GAL volunteers who are the foot soldiers of the dependency system and a voice for dependent children.”
Every year, National CASA Association honors the outstanding contributions of a judge who has furthered the best interest of children through their support of the GAL Program. Jessica Allen, Miami-Dade Director of the GAL Program stated, “At the heart of every successful GAL Program are dedicated judges, and Judge Lederman has shown her dedication to children’s issues and the GAL Program throughout her career. Her remarkable leadership includes such accomplishments as co-leading the team that created the Dade County Domestic Violence Court, helping to conceive of the Dependency Court Intervention Program for Family Violence, and co-creating the Miami Safe Start Initiative.” Leaderman, who came to the bench in 1988, has served on countless committees, written articles, developed programs and research and spoken about the needs of dependent children with compassion and purpose.
Another highly regarded judge in Florida who has dedicated his professional life to bettering the lives of children and families is the Honorable William E. Gladstone. When asked about Judge Lederman, he stated, “In terms of her caring from the bench, and brilliant interdisciplinary research and program development, Cindy Lederman has become America's model dependency judge."
National CASA Chief Executive Officer, Michael Piraino congratulated the Florida GAL Program for nominating Judge Cindy Lederman by saying, “Judge Lederman has been a leader in Florida and nationally on behalf of abused and neglected children. We are proud to have her as an enthusiastic supporter of volunteer Guardians ad Litem and CASA programs.”
Alan Abramowitz, Executive Director
Statewide Guardian ad Litem Office
Posted January 24, 2014
Florida Supreme Court Justice R. Fred Lewis and Ms. Annette Boyd Pitts, executive director of the Florida Law Related Education Association, have received the 2014 Sandra Day O’Connor Award for the Advancement of Civics Education, conferred by the National Center for State Courts. The award recognizes Justice Lewis and Ms. Pitts for their joint work on Florida’s Justice Teaching program andseveral other civics education programs.
Justice Teaching is a law-related education initiative that aims to partner a judge, lawyer, or other law-related professional with every elementary, middle, and high school in the state. The volunteer legal professionals undergo structured training and are furnished with proven teaching materials, ensuring they are well-prepared to create a lively and meaningful educational experience for the students.
Since the program’s inception, more than 4,000 lawyers and judges have been trained by Justice Lewis and Ms. Pitts to serve as resources for Justice Teaching; currently, all of Florida’s public schools—as well as nearly 400 of its private schools—have Justice Teaching volunteers.
In addition, read the National Center for State Courts News Release.