Chief Justice Jorge Labarga
Security and guardianship matters to be emphasized
By Gary Blankenship
Improving security at courthouses across the state and building in more protections for vulnerable people with guardians will be top priorities for the Supreme Court in coming months, according to Chief Justice Jorge Labarga.
In separate remarks to the Supreme Court Historical Society in late January and the Bar Board of Governors the following day, Labarga talked about those and some other issues. The court’s Judicial Management Council has workgroups studying both the security and guardianship matters.
“We are getting older . . . I’m referring to the fact that Florida’s population is aging and aging rapidly. In just a dozen years, demographers forecast that almost a quarter of the people living in Florida will be 65 years or older,” Labarga said. “It kind of boggles the mind. In light of that trend, it’s not surprising to see guardianship cases also on the upswing. The pace that that caseload grows is itself expected to increase.”
The state’s guardianship system has been the focus of investigations and news stories about elderly people being taken advantage of by guardians who control their lives and assets. That has attracted both legislative and judicial interest.
“Here’s the good news. For the last year and a half, the [JMC’s] Guardianship Workgroup has been hard at work. . . . The workgroup has been examining procedures and best practices and brainstorming ideas on how to better handle guardianship cases,” Labarga said. “We are determined that the courts do all they can to protect vulnerable people who are incapacitated in the state of Florida.”
That report is expected in the fall, he said, adding Florida is one of five states to receive a grant to work on an interdisciplinary approach to guardianship matters.
Nothing is more important to the function of courts than security, the chief justice said.
“Our courthouses are where people go to seek justice and resolve disputes. We absolutely must make sure that they are places that are safe and secure for the people there for help, as well as for the people who work there every single day,” he said.
“You have counties in our state where you can just walk right in. There’s not even a machine you have to go through. You can walk right in and go into a judge’s office,” Labarga said. “Then you have some other counties where it’s not as tight as it should be.”
That workgroup will be delivering its report at the end of June, he said.
Other issues touched on by Labarga included judicial pay, communications, and the Commission on Access to Civil Legal Justice.
He thanked the Legislature for raising judicial pay by 10 percent last year, the first raise for judges in more than a decade.
“This 10 percent pay increase addressed critical needs to help ensure our ability to attract and keep quality jurists at every level of our court system,” Labarga said, thanking Senate President Joe Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran for shepherding its passage and Gov. Rick Scott for signing the bill.
He touted the court system’s communications plan as a model for the country, noting it has been used as the example in a recent course at the National Conference of Chief Justices. The court also recently added the ability to livestream its sessions on Facebook.
“We have a reputation in this country as being at the forefront of transparency in what our branch does,” Labarga said. “We have a firm belief that not only must justice be done, it really must be seen to be done. That’s how we get our legitimacy. The more people who see what we do, the less they will question what we do. As technology advances, so should our ability and willingness to transmit [court sessions] so people can reach it in any way they have the ability.”
On the access commission, he recounted that Florida was one of the last major states to set up such a body aimed at helping traditionally underserved populations get legal assistance. The commission is now in its fourth year.
The major ingredient missing is money,” Labarga said, noting that the Texas access committee gets a legislative appropriation.
“We’re not quite there, yet. We hope to get there one day,” he said at the Board of Governors meeting where he thanked the Bar for financially assisting the commission.
“I promise you we are going to continue working. I think a lot of good is going to come out of it, and we are going to continue to study ways to provide access to justice.”