Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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State Attorney Skip Jarvis: Did he delay producing public records? The District Court of Appeals Wants To Know

In Courtroom 2, yesterday afternoon, Judge Julian Collins opened the Court's doors to the public for a motion hearing. From left to right: Arthur J. Jacobs, Attorney for State Attorney Skip Jarvis; Kit Carson, Attorney for the plaintiff, LJ Johnson, to his right; on the bench presiding, The Honorable Julian Collins.

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – Florida, the Sunshine State, is the bellwether across the country for its Sunshine Laws, which encompass both public meeting law and records access law. In Courtroom 2 in Lake City, yesterday afternoon at 2 pm, a motion hearing was held in open court to determine a side issue in a case of great public concern. Did Third Circuit State Attorney Robert "Skip" Jarvis delay producing public records for Lake City resident, plaintiff LJ Johnson and was the delay justified?

A Little History

On January 25, 2011, LJ Johnson's attorney, Kevin "Kit" Carson, spoke with an Assistant State Attorney (ASA) and it was agreed that he would come to Lake City to the Columbia County Courthouse on the following day to pick up written statements pertaining to the case.

On January 26, 2011, Attorney Carson arrived at the Courthouse at the prearranged time to pick up those statements.

At that time, the ASA advised Attorney Carson that the case had been dismissed and that the records Mr. Carson was going to pick up were now subject to the Public Records Laws of Florida.

Veteran Attorney Arthur Jacobs, attorney for State Attorney Skip Jarvis, 
makes a point to the court.

The Public Records Laws do not mandate requests be in writing and Attorney Carson asked for the records. The records were at "arms length" in the office in Lake City. The ASA refused to allow the records to be made available for inspection and copying at that time. The ASA claimed that there was a public records policy in place in the State Attorney's Office which said any public record would have to go to Mr. Jarvis's office in Live Oak for his personal review and that those records could only be inspected in Live Oak.

Even though the law did not require it, Attorney Carson hand wrote a request for the records, which were subsequently sent to Mr. Jarvis in Live Oak for his personal inspection pursuant to his purported public records policy.

LJ Johnson sued State Attorney Jarvis, claiming that making him drive 30 miles to inspect records, records which are normally housed in Lake City, a round trip of 60 miles to Live Oak and claimed that Mr. Jarvis violated the law and the Florida Constitution:

JARVIS's office policy of removing public records from the custody of their home counties to Live Oak, Suwannee County, Florida, and requiring the people of Columbia County to travel thirty (30) miles to Live Oak to inspect and copy the records is unreasonable, causes unnecessary expense and delay, and is a violation of §119.07(1) and §119.021(1)(a), Florida Statutes, and Article I §24, of the Florida Constitution.

The Secret Columbia County Court

Judge Julian Collins ponders the questions before the Court during a motion hearing on Thursday, which he opened to the public, an unusual practice in Florida's Circuit courts.

On March 3, 2011, this case, a public records case of great public concern to all the citizens of Florida, came before Circuit Court Judge Paul Bryan in a secret court proceeding in the Columbia County Courthouse, a proceeding that was not noticed or open to the public.

State Attorney Jarvis, as would have been expected, made a motion to dismiss. Motions are generally taken up by Judges before a case is heard. If a case is dismissed at this time, the merits of the case are never heard.

On March 4, 2011, Judge Bryan granted State Attorney Jarvis's motion and dismissed the case without hearing any evidence. Judge Bryan also denied attorney's fees to Mr. Jarvis.

In Judge Bryan's order of dismissal, as if wondering out loud, he wrote:

 ... one may wonder [without deciding] why the very file requested would not have been brought to the hearing followed by examination and copying being completed. As you will see below, the District Court of Appeals was wondering the same thing.

On March 31, 2011, LJ Johnson began proceedings to appeal Judge Bryan's dismissal to the District Court Of Appeals in Tallahassee.

The District Court of Appeals – County Court Judge Paul  Bryan Reversed

On November 16, 2011 the appeal process wound its way to a conclusion. LJ Johnson prevailed and thought he would get his day in court.

A three judge panel of the District Court of Appeals (DCA) ruled unanimously that local Circuit Court Judge Bryan was a little hasty in his dismissal of LJ Johnson's public records case. The Court said, "We find that the dismissal was inappropriate and reverse and remand for an evidentiary hearing on the merits." (Emphasis added by the Court):

On remand, the trial court must determine whether there was a delay to produce the requested records and, if so, whether the delay was reasonable under the facts of this case. The reasonableness of the appellee's policy itself is not the subject of the inquiry. Rather, the inquiry centers on whether the application of the policy resulted in an unjustified delay that amounted to an unlawful refusal to comply with chapter 119.
We REVERSE and REMAND for an evidentiary hearing.

Back In Columbia County – State Attorney Skip Jarvis fights to keep the merits of the case from being heard

When the case came back to Columbia County, the original trial Judge, Paul Bryan, recused himself from the case. Circuit Judge Julian Collins took over.

Here come those motions again.

Kit Carson, Attorney for plaintiff LJ Johnson.

 Yesterday, in what would have been another secret court proceeding in the judge's chambers, if it were not for the Observer requesting an open court proceeding, the court addressed the issue of the reimbursement of LJ Johnson's court costs.

Rule 9.400 of the Florida Rules of Appellate Procedure separates costs and fees into two separate parts: (a) being “Costs” and (b) being “Attorney’s Fees."

LJ Johnson, having prevailed in the DCA, which kicked his case back to the local court and required it to be determined on the merits, asked the Court for his "Costs."

State Attorney Jarvis, through his council, Arthur Jacobs of Fernandina Beach, argued that court costs and attorney's fees were the same. Mr. Jacobs and his co-counsel Bill Brannon argued that Florida Statute (FS) 284.30 was controlling.

FS 284.30 requires that papers be served to the Dept. of Financial Services advising them of a request for attorney's fees, however, the very next section of that statute, §284.31 states that this only applies to "... all departments of the State of Florida..."

The Governor, Attorney General and the state's 67 elected Sheriffs are not departments. They are elected officials and indeed are the Government. The Department of Motor Vehicles, DEP and others are appointed and are departments.

It is like getting your car repaired: The court costs are the fixed costs, the upfront costs, filing fees etc. -- these are the parts. The attorney's fees are the labor.

For now, Judge Collins ruled in favor of State Attorney Jarvis. Judge Collins found that attorney's fees include court costs and that the Office of the State Attorney is a Department of the state. Judge Collins can reverse himself, which he has already done in this case.

If Judge Collins doesn't reconsider, it appears that the case will be on hold for a while, as the DCA decides another one, or two, as Mr. Johnson still has another motion pending at the District Court of Appeals.


The wheels of justice grind slowly.

State Attorney Skip Jarvis is up for reelection.

Columbia County is not alone in depriving the people of access to their courts. Secret court sessions are and have been endemic in the Florida Justice System.

The People have the right to know, except in a few well defined circumstances, what is going on in their courtrooms and what their State Attorneys and Judges are up to.

Chief Judge of the circuit, The Honorable Leandra Johnson, has the authority and power to remove the veil of secrecy and make the Third Judicial Circuit the first circuit in Florida that requires that the People be made aware of the court's calendars, which include motion calendars.

[Citizen] LJ Johnson vs. [State Attorney] Skip Jarvis was dismissed in a secret court proceeding in a Columbia County Court. The case would not have seen the light of day if not for Mr. Johnson's appeal and the subsequent request of the Observer, who found out about the case only by accident.

This public records case is a case of great public importance, which eventually may affect everyone who would ask for a public record in Florida, the nation's bellwether when it comes to public records access.

Did State Attorney Skip Jarvis respect the rights of the People in his interpretation of the Public Records Law?

That is the question the District Court has asked a Columbia County Court to decide.

While Mr. Jarvis, for the time being has won this minor skirmish, this issue is far from over.

State Attorney Skip Jarvis, as well as all the Florida Circuit Courts would do well to ponder the words of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, "Sunlight is the best disinfectant." 

This work by the Columbia County Observer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.

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