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The Supremes Will Have Food for Thought, The Panel Met, Most Public Officials Blew off the Public

Posted March 03, 2015  11:00 am | Part II (Part I: The FL Sup. Ct. Wants to Hear You)

State Attorney Jeff Siegmeister, along with Public Defender Blair Payne (out of view) were the only public officials who stayed to hear the public. (Insert (upper left) before the recess)

Third Circuit Chief Judge, Gregg Parker

COLUMBIA COUNTY/LAKE CITY, FL – Yesterday afternoon from 3 pm to 7 pm, 4th DCA Judge Jonathan Gerber, Third Circuit Chief Judge, Gregg Parker, and former Third Circuit Chief Judge, Leandra Johnson, took up residence in Columbia County's courtroom I to listen, take notes, and ultimately report back to the Supremes. The Florida judicial branch is developing its long-range strategic plan for 2016-2022.

Folks came from as far as Tampa to address the committee.

Most of Columbia County's public and elected officials, along with the County's daily newspaper, the Lake City Reporter, came to be seen and mingle with each other, then made a bee line to the exit when the public came to the microphone.

4 Dist. Ct. of Appeals Judge, Jonathan Gerber

Judge Parker introduced the panel and said, "We're hopeful this will be very fruitful."

Judge Gerber chaired the committee and thanked Judge Parker, Judge Johnson and Chief Court Administrator Sandra Lanier and others for their effort in putting the Columbia County event together.

Before folks began walking up to the microphone, Judge Gerber asked, "What do you think the Judicial System is doing well and what do you think the Judicial System could do to improve itself? What do you think are the most important issues that will be facing the courts in the next six years; most importantly, how you think we can meet those demands?"

Columbia County's Circuit Ct. Judge Leandra Johnson, former Chief Judge

Judge Gerber concluded, asking folks to ask themselves, "If I had a crystal ball, what crisis are we going to have to deal with? Tell us what you think that might be."

The Public Officials: Technology & Money

Clerk of the Columbia County Courts, P. DeWitt Cason, told the panel, "I can assure you that technology is a huge part of our communications. I would like to see the courts continue to make sure that the smaller counties and the smaller circuits receive the funding necessary to improve communications. We still have a long way to go."

Judge Gerber inquired about how the technology systems throughout the Third Circuit interacted with each other and how the circuit is assuring that there is a "streamlined system within the circuit itself."

Clerk Cason responded that they are "in the process of building that system. I'm sure Judge Parker could fill you in," he said.

PD Blair Payne has a high level of frustration in the PD's Office.

Public Defender (PD) Blair Payne explained that the counties in the circuit are responsible for his IT communications. "I can assure you that if we went to the counties with what our real needs are... they'd run me out of town. I could promise you that. There just simply aren't enough funds on the local level in these small counties."

Mr. Payne also explained to the panel that his office does not have online access to juvenile records. "Obviously, that's a critical need," he said.

State Attorney Jeff Siegmeister also brought up technology. "About half of the constitutional public defenders/state attorneys use one tracking type software; half do not," he said.

Mr. Siegmeister said that he hoped the committee's recommendation would help guide the legislature on this funding issue.

Columbia County's Sherriff, Mark Hunter, attended the meeting. He had nothing to say.

Columbia County's Assistant County Manager, Ben Scott, also came to discuss funding. He said, "We have a surcharge that we do collect to help fund information technology." He explained that the county budgeted about $70,000.

He said, "Between the State Attorney, Public Defender, and Court Administration, their budget just for information technology was $120,000. So we're $50,000 short."

Mr. Scott said that he would like to see state mandated requirements funded at the state level, and not the local level.

Three Rivers Legal Services, a non-profit that provides free legal services to low income-income residents in 17 Florida counties also complained about technology and electronic access to court records.

The Public

After a short recess the session was reconvened. All the public and elected officials that weren't directly involved in the proceedings headed for the exits except Public Defender Blair Payne and State Attorney Jeff Siegmeister. Columbia County Clerk of Courts, DeWitt Cason, had a representative in the gallery.

The panel listened to various speakers talk about Florida's leadership in public corruption, the grand jury system, attorneys, pro se litigants, guardian ad litem, and family court.

Many speakers addressed the issues of family court, with some of them coming from other parts of the state to make their feelings known to the panel. This appears to be a hot button issue throughout the state.

The panel also heard remarks that the courts are not open and transparent; that the public doesn’t know what is going on in them; and that court calendars are not readily available for inspection in the circuit's courthouses.

Motion hearings, which generally occur in the judge's chambers, are not on any public calendar, and many times the public is told the hearing is not open to the public. This level of court/judge/attorney secrecy occurs throughout the state. It is the way Florida courts do and have done their business.

It was also suggested that all coming into the courts should be required to pass through the metal detectors.


The committee welcomes all comments. Links to comment and to the current strategic plan can be found in part I of this article: The Florida Supreme Court Wants to Hear From You

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