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COURT WATCH - Court Monitoring!     WWW.FACTSCOURTWATCH.ORG

Comment Regarding Florida Courts:

Proceedings in courtrooms are open unless the trial judge (not the chief judge of the circuit) has ordered the courtroom to be closed, which is done sometimes in the case of children or traumatized victims testifying about something of an intimate nature. Attending a hearing in chambers takes more effort than merely walking into a courtroom. Yet, they are theoretically open; witness the number of times reporters are there.

Judges often hold dissolution and child custody/support hearings in chambers to respect the privacy of the parties. The seating is limited. If one party wanted to move the hearing to the courtroom to have family and friends attend, and the other did not, the judge probably wouldn't move it. Because either party can invoke a rule that keeps witnesses out of the courtroom before they testify, not everyone can be there, regardless of location.

The recourse is to have a court reporter to preserve the record. The record would document any abuse of the judge's discretion for an appeal. Regarding the comment of the poster that the court reporter did not accurately transcribe the results, I've seen where court reporters missed subtleties while more than one person was talking, but I've yet to see one make gross distortions. They are certified and must be disinterested in the case to work. If a party wanted to tape record the hearing, as long as all the parties were informed (not asked permission) and the judge approved, it could be done. If a party objected, the judge would have to consider the reason why and rule.

Most courtwatching occurs in courtrooms. There is plenty to observe there in all kinds of cases. However, I know one judge who held D.V. injunction hearings in a room behind the bench, while parties and witnesses waited in the audience section in front. It appeared to be for privacy. A courtwatcher could also read a certified transcript of a hearing or hear a tape. A courtwatcher could ask the judge for admittance to chambers or the backroom. Again, objection by one party could result in excluding the courtwatcher.

Linda G. Miklowitz < LMiklowitz@aol.com >
Attorney & Counselor at Law
NOW President : Tallahassee, FL

from Linda Miklowitz of Tallahassee NOW LindaMiklo@aol.com

This is a reconstruction of the Courtwatch Program materials I created in the early 1990s. There is a report form and an information sheet about the court system--two pages. One coordinator can administer it by recruiting courtwatchers and collecting their forms, alerting the board to the significant incidents. This is something that almost everyone can do for two hours a week. I'd appreciate the feedback to make the forms better.

Linda G. Miklowitz
Attorney & Counselor at Law
Tallahassee, FL

Courtwatch Program

The purpose of the Courtwatch Program is to observe silently the administration of justice in local courts, paying particular attention to the existence of bias on the basis of gender as well as on race, color, national origin, ethnicity, religion and disability. The existence of gender bias had already been established in 1988 when Chief Justice Parker Lee McDonald authorized the creation of the Gender Bias Study Commission to study the extent of that bias and make concrete recommendations. The Commission issued its report of 240 pages in 1990, concluding that "gender bias is practiced to a disturbing degree...often in ways that have become highly institutionalized."

To be effective, the courtwatcher must be as unobtrusive as possible, as the observer's presence can alter results, and to be very careful in documentation. Significant incidents can be reported to the chief judge of the circuit, the chief judge of the Florida Supreme Court, and to the media.

In the case of a significant incident, try to find witnesses who will corroborate your report. Ask them to write statements and sign and date them before they leave. In cases like this, it will be apparent who wants to step forward and take action. Also get the name and phone number of a court reporter if there is one. Keep in mind, not all incidents you report must be bad. There are many incidents where judges take the time to explain the court system to bewildered citizens. Please remember to also document the good. Remember also that incidents of bias can occur in any court, even traffic and small claims.

Virtually all criminal case proceedings occur in courtrooms, but many civil hearings, including final hearings of dissolution, occur in the judge's chambers. There is usually a table with about eight chairs extending from the judge's desk. A court reporter often sits to the side. If you wish to attend a hearing in chambers, make sure at least one party wants you there before you go in. If you can't reach the parties, you can ask the judge. The worst that can happen is that you will be told "no." Let us know how successful you are.

Turn in the originals of your report to the Courtwatch committee, keeping a copy for yourself if you wish.

 



Courtwatch Report Form

Date: _________ Time:__________
Location (courthouse and room no. if applicable):
Type of proceeding (hearing, docket sounding, trial, traffic court, first appearance, etc.):
Style of case (A v. B.), if applicable with case number (yr. - number):
Presiding Judge:
Court reporter, if present:

Describe what occurred:

 

 

Your name, address, telephone:


Witnesses (name, address, phone number). Attach their statements.

Return promptly to:

 



How the Court System Is Organized

Florida has two different trial courts, county and circuit. Article V of the Florida Constitution sets out their respective duties. There are two types of actions: criminal and civil. In a criminal case the State files charges against a citizen, called the defendant. There are two types of criminal charges: misdemeanor and felony. Crimes punishable by more than one year in statute are felonies. Felony cases are heard in circuit court. Misdemeanors go to county court. Most traffic offenses are not criminal because no jail time is prescribed. Most counties have a special traffic court. Some counties have developed other specialized courts such as those dealing with drug offenses.

In civil cases, the amount of damages determines which trial court has jurisdiction. Circuit court takes cases with damage of $25,000 or more. For claims of $2,500, the county court has a special small claims court where parties do not have to have lawyers. There are special rules of summary administration to expedite the proceedings. Sometimes the subject of the action determines the court. The county court hears landlord-tenant cases.

In a civil lawsuit, the person filing the complaint is the plaintiff. The filing fee depends on the damages claimed, ranging from about $50 to $100. The complaint with a summons is served on the defendant by a special deputy or certified process server. The defendant has 20 days to file an answer.

The plaintiff files a reply if the defendant has alleged facts in what are called affirmative defenses in the answer. (An example of an affirmative defense is accord and satisfaction to a complaint seeking collection of a debt.) Discovery follows. The parties may ask each other questions that must be answered under oath and also to produce documents. Either party can ask to be put on the court docket for trial when discovery is complete. In the last decade mediation has become increasingly used as a way to avoid protracted litigation. Mediation is often made a mandatory step in small claims court and in dissolutions. The parties sit down with a mediator and attempt to resolve their issues. If the mediation is unsuccessful, settlement offers are not admissible in court as evidence of liability.

The law of divorce has changed markedly since 1972, especially in the last decade. The word divorce does not appear in the statute, which is Chapter 61 of Florida Statutes. The term is dissolution. The word custody has been removed in recent years. The parents have primary or secondary residential parenting. The child lives for the majority of the time at the primary residence, but the secondary residential parent can have up to half the time. Usually the secondary parent pays child support to the primary parent. The amount is determined by a formula that considers the income of both parents and a chart of guidelines as to what it costs to support a child based on the
parents income. To depart from the guidelines, the judge must enter written findings. However, there are areas in which the judge is given a lot of discretion to reduce the amount, for example if the secondary parent cares for the child for significant portions of time.

In most cases the judge awards shared parental responsibility to both parents, the power to make major decisions about the child's life such as those pertaining to education and medical care. Where one parent is not found to be fit, where the parent is convicted of domestic or child abuse, for example, the court awards sole parental responsibility. Primary residence is based on about a dozen factors that are numbered in Ch. 61, but not ranked. The parent who has been satisfactorily caring for the child at the time of the hearing for a significant amount of time is a prime candidate for primary parent. The special rules for dissolution require the parties to exchange mutual discovery, mainly detailed financial affidavits, which get more detailed if a party makes more than $50,000.

In civil and criminal court, there are motion hearings along the way to trial, or, in the case of dissolution, final hearing. Almost every proceeding in criminal court, either county or civil, occurs in open court. In civil court, judges tend to hold hearings in chambers, often for the privacy of the parties. You are not necessarily barred. Newspaper reporters attend them. You should get the permission of the judge or at least one party before you enter. (As a pratical matter, on a one time basis if you keep a low profile and show confidence that you belong there, both sides will assume you are with the other party. If the rule is invoked to bar witnesses from listening to the other testimony, you will be asked if you are a witness. Simply say "no." However, it's best to ask the judge.)

WHAT DOES WATCH DO in Minnesota ?
Volunteers are trained to monitor domestic abuse, child abuse and sexual assault cases as they move through the Hennepin County (Minnesota) criminal justice system. Volunteers, recognized by their red clipboards, provide a public presence in the courtroom and note objectively observable behaviors by justice system personnel. The volunteers are concerned, civic-minded people from a wide variety of backgrounds and receive training in criminal court procedures.
http://www.mtn.org/~watch/

 


The fundamental element of court monitoring is to have a community watch group to track both the behavior of the courts and the conditions of courthouse facilities to ensure that people are not being treated unjustly based on their race, religion, gender, or sexual preference. Often connected to community-based victim services or crime prevention organizations, these volunteer groups report their findings back to the courts, the public, and the press. http://ncpc.org/3bias2dc.htm