Justice Must Be Seen: Implementing Florida’s New State Courts Communication Plan
One of the bedrock principles of the legal profession is a maxim derived from a 1924 case1 a nd often summarized in a brief phrase: “Not only must justice be done. It also must be seen to be done.”
Today’s world has made this maxim all the more fundamental for Florida’s legal profession and for the state courts system on which it rests. In the 21st century, it is crucial that the people of this state routinely see that their courts are enforcing due process and achieving justice in a way that is transparent and accountable.
Justice must be seen as it is being done — not just the sensational story about a high-profile case that catches the attention of the media, but the thousands of cases that are the single most important event to an individual or a family facing a life-changing situation.
And we are the ones who must make sure that the people genuinely see this.
Our profession has forever left behind the era when lawyers and judges did not need to explain their work to the public we serve. Today we must be willing to inform the people in plain, direct language, using the ever-increasing number of communications tools at our disposal, about the many ways we achieve justice and fulfill our role as the final guarantors of liberty under law in our system of separated powers.
That is the chief reason why the Florida Supreme Court last December approved a groundbreaking new statewide court communication plan developed by its Judicial Management Council.2 F or the first time, this plan recognizes that we as lawyers and judges must venture into the high-tech world of the web, social media, and of other emerging communications technologies in order to tell our story.
Necessity is causing the court system to reconsider its prior disdain for media such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and YouTube.
Trained lawyers readily understand the ways that courts work, the unusual Latin and French terms we inherited from England’s legal system, and the arcane procedures of the law. But why do we assume that the general public understands these nuances of our profession?
They often do not, and so it is incumbent upon us to explain ourselves.
This reality cannot be avoided. It is simply not realistic to expect the public to readily understand specialized terminology and legal processes expressed in these arcane terms. Nor can we expect them to take time from their busy lives to watch the ways we labor for fair outcomes in our courtrooms and hearing rooms every day.
Yes, it is true that we continue to deliver effective justice in the Florida state courts. But it is also true that not enough people actually see and understand the ways in which we make justice happen. This lack of understanding can breed mistrust of the courts and of the legal profession. We allow this state of affairs to occur at our peril.
This is where the new communication plan, called “Delivering Our Message,” comes into play. Under the new plan, our goal is to make sure that the citizens who use our state court system see the importance of the legal profession and of the third branch of government. It is vital for them to see the determined efforts we make to achieve justice as part of our daily mission.
But the Florida Supreme Court’s new communication plan does not stop with just this abstract objective. We also have identified a specific group of people in the legal system who will be charged with the responsibility of implementing our new communication plan with the help and cooperation from the Office of the State Courts Administrator, The Florida Bar, and the judges of our state.
This group is the Florida Court Public Information Officers, Inc. (FCPIO) a federally recognized, educational nonprofit put together by court staff starting in 2005 with major support from The Florida Bar Foundation. FCPIO was an outgrowth of an earlier Supreme Court commission created by Chief Justice Charles T. Wells.
In March of this year, I was privileged to address a full meeting of FCPIO in Orlando, where its members received advanced training from the National Center for State Courts with support from the State Justice Institute. The enthusiastic response of this group of court communicators left me inspired. After meeting with them, I could see that they are fully committed to the goals we have set in our plan — goals designed to help us become better messengers to the people we serve and protect.
In speaking to FCPIO, I emphasized the importance of getting our message across and of the negative results when there is a failure of communication. One example is the fact that the budget for the largest single component of our state judiciary — the trial courts — was cut by $2.7 million during the 2016 legislative session.
This cut occurred as part of a long trend in the legislature to deny much-needed funding to the state courts. The sad result is that the resources we need as the third branch have remained sorely deficient for a decade now.
I sometimes hear judges say that courts do not do PR. Perhaps that perspective was acceptable before the ongoing revolution in communications technology that began in the 1990s. But we are foolish if we do not recognize how much the world of communications has changed since the World Wide Web entered our lives more than 20 years ago.
In the past, we relied on what many now call the traditional news media to tell our story to the public. That model worked well for a long time. With so many large cities, Florida has had some truly outstanding newspapers that have spent a lot of time and money informing the people what our courts do to achieve justice, but that world is vanishing. The biggest media companies in the world today are corporations like Google and Facebook, and they are not telling the people of Florida what they need to know about their judiciary. In fact, the new business model they have pioneered rests on the idea that their only role is to provide an open vehicle for communications.
We must supply the content.
As I told FCPIO, the bottom line today is that we must start telling our own story through the reasonable use of every appropriate tool at our disposal. If we do not tell that story, and if people do not understand and appreciate the many ways we achieve justice, then we are going to see many more years ahead when the legislature under funds the courts.
I do not pretend that the solution is an easy one. Far from it. It will take many years to reverse the current trend and, even then, we will need to maintain constant vigilance in getting our information out to the public. What is crystal clear today is that we now have reached a point where proactively releasing public information must be a permanent function in every courthouse in Florida.
That function will be maintained by FCPIO members, with staff support from the Florida Supreme Court’s Public Information Office. The guidelines for implementing this effort are set forth in the 2016 state courts communication plan approved last December. It will be a challenge to take on this new duty with our existing resources, but I am convinced we can do so through a creative use of technology and the formation of new partnerships as outlined in the plan.
When I gave FCPIO its official charge in March, I laid out seven goals that all of us must strive toward during the four years provided for the creation of this new communications structure. They are well worth repeating here.
1) Let People Know the Good Things We Do
Lawyers and judges in the years ahead must recognize opportunities to deliver positive messages about our courts and the legal system. We must tell people the good things we do. Moreover, one of the most positive messages we can deliver is to acknowledge our own problems and demonstrate what we are doing to correct them. We are a profession of problem solvers, so we always should emphasize our role as a part of the solution.
2) Speak with One Voice
The communication plan underscores the need for giving the public a consistent message based on several core beliefs. One such belief is the idea that lawyers and courts administer justice so that we all can live together in a civil and peaceful manner, in free and orderly communities, and in a way consistent with our values as a democracy. Consistent communication — speaking with one voice — requires careful thought, good planning, and a commitment to making it a top priority to let the public know what we are doing. This, in turn, requires that we carefully choose, support, and train the people who will be our communicators.
3) Find Creative Ways to Communicate
How we speak to the public is as important as what we say. Sometimes, a traditional press release may be the ideal method, but at other times we may need to send someone to talk to a group directly. At other times, a better approach may be an op-ed article or a new public outreach program modeled on techniques tried and proven elsewhere. We must strive to find new and creative solutions that allow us to communicate more clearly and meaningfully with all of our audiences. The approaches we use today may be replaced by something even better in the future, so we must keep our eyes open for innovation.
4) Use New Technology
Anyone who has watched the arc of communications technology over the last 20 years can see how rapidly digital media are evolving. One obvious force now creating profound changes is the prevalence of the smartphone and Wi-fi-based technology. We must be aware of the new tools and learn to use them in ways that enhance public access to court information. Another example is the new Web gateway portal being proposed for development by the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice that I have chaired these past two years. New technology often means that we as lawyers and judges can serve the public even better, so we must explore new digital systems as they arise in the years ahead.
5) Foster Internal Communications
A key component of any successful plan is making sure that our own people — the lawyers, judges, and staff who are part of our team — are fully informed about our communications planning. It will enable them to contribute successfully when their help is needed. We cannot hope to have a strong and consistent message if our team lacks the knowledge to work together toward a common goal.
6) Empower Communicators
The use of public information officers by courts and legal groups is a relatively new phenomenon in the long history of American law. The time clearly has come to recognize that PIOs are a critical part of our mission to serve the public. We need to identify and empower the people who will be our PIOs and help them develop the skills needed to champion the best possible information programs we can provide. That is why all 26 divisions of the Florida state courts as well as The Florida Bar are fully represented in the membership of FCPIO — and why their continued participation in FCPIO programs should be considered priorities.
7) Build a Communications Network
In the years ahead, all of us must continue to build and support this network of communicators so it can sustain our common effort. Support should include mentoring, regular educational programs, and a collegial approach to the tasks at hand. We must work as a team. I am very pleased that, in this regard, Florida is a pioneer among the other states. FCPIO currently is the only state network of court communicators in the nation that is charged with implementing a written court-approved plan. That is one reason why FCPIO and the Florida communication plan are being featured at major meetings of legal organizations in 2016, such as the National Association of Court Management, the National Association of Bar Executives, and the Conference of Court Public Information Officers.
Florida’s new state court communication plan is a major step forward in meeting the challenges our legal system will face as the 21st century progresses. FCPIO already has begun implementation by appointing committees of the PIOs who are charged with overseeing key parts of the plan. I am asking that all members of The Florida Bar, all state judges, and all members of court administration give their full support as we push forward in finding solutions that work.
We already do great work in making sure that justice is being done. Now we must make equally sure that people see it when it is happening.
1 Rex v. Sussex Justices, ex parte McCarthy, 1 KB 256 (1924).
2 The approved communications plan can be found at Florida Supreme Court, Delivering Our Message: Court Communication Plan for the Judicial Branch of Florida, available at http://www.floridasupremecourt.org/pub_info/documents/2016-Judicial-Branch-Court-Communication-Plan.pdf.
Chief Justice Jorge Labarga of the Florida Supreme Court is native of Cuba, from which his family escaped in the 1960s. After making Florida his home, he earned undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Florida. He was appointed to the Florida Supreme Court in 2009 and is Florida’s first chief justice of Hispanic descent.