By Gary Blankenship
Longer terms for the Supreme Court chief justice and for trial and appellate court chief judges, as well as increased managerial and administrative authority for those court officers, are being recommended by a special committee that has comprehensively studied governance of Florida courts.
The Supreme Court Governance Study Group also called on the Supreme Court to take a larger role in setting policies for the court system, and for re-chartering the county, circuit, and district court of appeal judicial conferences under court rules instead of state statute.
The study group said the Supreme Court should speak for the entire court system both in the Legislature and to the public on all matters affecting the courts, including judicial salaries and benefits.
The study group was created by an administrative order by then-Chief Justice Peggy Quince in October 2009, following work that year on the court system’s long range and strategic plan. Justice Ricky Polston was chair of the study group; 11th Circuit Judge Joseph Farina was vice chair, and its membership included former Bar Presidents Jay White and Alan Bookman.
“During the development of the strategic plan, it became apparent that a rejuvenation of the internal governance structure of the court system was necessary in order to be more proactive and nimble in meeting its vision of being accessible, fair, effective, responsive, and accountable. The Governance Study Group believes that its recommendations for improving the governance structure of the court system will enable the judicial branch to better fulfill its mission,” the study group noted in its final report, which was submitted to the court in early February.
The charge to the study group was to review the court system’s governance, including its effectiveness and efficiency, and to recommend ways to improve that governance, including court management.
The study group looked at how the courts are governed, how the judiciary interacts with the Legislature, how court rules are made, the current array of court commissions, committees, and ad hoc committees. It also brought in the National Center for State Courts to provide expert advice and sought input from a variety of other sources.
“Clearly, during the entire course of the Governance Study Group’s work, remarkable consensus occurred on the need to modernize the governance structure of the judicial branch, and develop a more unified systems approach to enhance progress, alignment, coherence, and functioning,” the report said. “[T]he Governance Study Group members strongly supported a unified systems approach that will more effectively enable the court system to anticipate and deal with current and emergent challenges, and improve functioning at a variety of levels.”
The study group’s first recommendation was that “the Supreme Court take an active leadership role in setting policy for the judicial branch, establishing programs, and monitoring the implementation and impact of those policies and programs.” Consistent with that, Rule of Judicial Administration 2.205 should be amended to specifically provide that the Supreme Court’s powers include “establishing policy for the judicial branch.”
That would, the study group said, mean the court would set budget and compensation priorities for the court, and no other committee, judicial conference, or individual judge “is permitted to recommend substantive law changes or state budget priorities, including compensation and benefits, to the legislative or executive branches that have not been approved by the Supreme Court.”
The study group, in conjunction with those recommendations, also said the chief justice should have clear administrative and leadership authority for the courts, and should be the chief spokesperson for the court with the public, other branches of government, and within the court system itself. Part of the chief justice’s duties should be regular e-mail communication with all judges on court budget and administrative matters, and regular meetings with chief judges, either in person or by electronic conference.
To enhance the chief justice’s expanded role, he or she should serve a four-year term, beginning in July 2012, be allowed to serve successive terms, and be selected “based on managerial, administrative and leadership abilities, without regard to seniority.”
The report said the chief justice should be regarded as the CEO of the court system, carrying out policies and priorities set by the entire Supreme Court.
And just as the Supreme Court and the chief justice should have enhanced duties and authority, the study group said chief judges should have more power to carry out court policies, including, if necessary, reporting judges to the Supreme Court for possible action by the Judicial Qualifications Commission. The study group also said chief judges should have four-year, instead of the present two-year, terms, with the terms staggered between the various circuits and district courts.
“As noted above in the section on the supreme court and the chief justice, a stronger governance system may be marked by very involved and consistent leadership; in the judicial branch, the chief judges at the district and trial court levels are integral to the concept of a leadership team that carries out policy as set forth by the supreme court,” the report said.
Among the study group’s other recommendations were that chief judges, both trial and appellate, should be selected for their leadership abilities without regard to seniority and should be empowered to direct judges on their courts to follow court policies and administrative plans, and that chief judges of circuit and district courts should meet in person quarterly as well as have regular conference calls.
The suggested rule changes include one to Rule 2.215 and Rule 2.210, which would read: “The failure of any judge to comply with an order or directive of the chief judge shall be considered neglect of duty and may be reported by the chief judge to the chief justice of the Supreme Court. The chief justice may report the neglect of duty by a judge to the Judicial Qualifications Commission or other appropriate person or body, or take such other corrective action as may be appropriate.”
On the Conference of County Court Judges, Conference of Circuit Court Conferences, and Conference of District Court Judges, the report recommended they should be chartered under Rule of Judicial Administration 2.220. That change would require the repeal of F.S. §26.55. That and other changes would mean the conferences would no longer take the lead in advocating for judicial compensation and benefits.
Other recommendations from the study group include:
• The regular review cycle for procedural rules should be reduced from three to two years.
• The Judicial Management Council, which has been suspended for budget reasons, should be reactivated and charged with anticipating problems for the court system so the courts can be more proactive than reactive. The council would also review various court commissions and committees that might have overlapping jurisdictions.
• The Office of the State Courts Administrator should regularly report to the court on the “implementation and impact” of court policies. OSCA should also coordinate between various commissions and committees that might have overlapping jurisdictions.
• The Supreme Court should create a legislative committee which would “act, along with the chief justice and the state court administrator, as the branch’s liaison with the legislative and executive branches. . . . The various constituencies of the branch should have input into developing legislative and budgetary priorities, and should convey that message as part of a unitary message. The standing committee should, along with the chief justice and state court administrator advocate on all salary and benefit issues, including judicial salaries and benefits.”
• A mechanism should be developed that allows judges to communicate ideas and concerns to the chief justice, the Supreme Court, and OSCA, with the recognition “that most issues are of a local nature and appropriately handled at that level rather than communicating the issue to the chief justice, supreme court, or the Office of the State Courts Administrator.”
The full report can be found on the Supreme Court’s website.