1. Can’t We Cancel a Conference and Save Some Jobs?
The monies used to fund judicial education cannot be used to pay salaries. While the loss of jobs and reduction of the workforce within the judicial system continues to be of great concern to us, canceling a judicial conference would not translate into saving jobs. You may recall that when the budget crisis first emerged, many judges offered to reduce their own salaries or take furloughs in an effort to save people’s jobs. However, this could not be done under the budgetary scheme. The same is true for judicial conferences. The money devoted to judicial education cannot simply be transferred to another budget line to be used for staff positions. This does not mean that the judiciary is not considering ways to more effectively manage judicial education. To the contrary, the County and Circuit Court Conferences, the Supreme Court, the Office of State Courts Administrator and the Florida Court Educational Council (the governing body of judicial education) are actively pursuing alternatives to provide judicial education in a more cost-effective way, including distance learning and webcams.
2. What Exactly is Judicial Education?
Let’s look at Florida judicial education. Judges are required to attend a minimum of 30 hours of continuing judicial education during a three-year reporting period. The most effective way to accomplish this has traditionally been by attending educational conferences. Florida has one of the most highly-regarded judicial education programs in the country, and has become a model for many states. Most states require their judges to attend out-of-state, national programs for their judicial education, at a much higher cost to the state.
Our current education program includes the following:
Florida Judicial College (sometimes called “new judges’ college”): Mandatory course for newly-elected and newly-appointed judges, one week in January (before they take the bench) and a second week in March.
Florida College of Advanced Judicial Studies (AJS): A one-week college (currently offered in May each year) that provides intensive training and continuing education in specific areas of the law (e.g., advanced evidence, sentencing issues, legal writing and judicial philosophy, child support and alimony, case management techniques, search and seizure). The courses offered at AJS are primarily advanced courses for more experienced judges, but there are some basic courses offered in all areas (i.e., criminal, civil, family, juvenile). Additionally, this conference includes a 4½ day Handling Capital Cases course which judges must complete before they can preside over a capital case. You will recall that we canceled AJS this year when the budget crisis led to drastic cuts and created uncertainty about future budgeting. As a result, many judges throughout the State will have to wait until 2009 before they can become certified to preside over a capital case.
Education and Business Conferences: Both the Circuit and County Judges in Florida may currently attend two conferences per year (three days each), during which they can attend “tracks” of civil, criminal, family, juvenile and probate courses. Many of these courses are designed as “basic” or “fundamental” courses for new judges or for judges who are rotating into new divisions where they may have little or no background. Other courses are intermediate or advanced, and still others are “update” courses designed to alert judges to changes in the law or new and emerging trends. In addition, Conference business is conducted during the Conferences (committee meetings, election of officers, planning and preparing education courses to be presented the following year, etc.). We are considering whether two conferences per year are necessary given the current economic conditions. The annual business conference (summer conference) is required by statute and is paid for through state trust funds.
3. Who Teaches These Courses and How Are They Paid?
Note that most of the courses taught at the Conferences are designed and taught exclusively by judges, who do so without any additional compensation. We plan the programming, train the judges who serve as faculty, research and prepare the written materials and present the course. Anyone who has ever taught a course knows the amount of time, energy and effort that goes into the planning, preparation and presentation of just one course. The average judicial conference offers 25 to 30 different courses for judges to attend. This is a massive undertaking and those who participate in judicial education do so because they know the important role continuing education plays in maintaining confidence in our system of justice.
4. What’s in it for Us Lawyers?
You can’t have it both ways: You want judges who are well-trained, well-educated, who stay current on changes in the law and trends, able to effectively manage burgeoning caseloads, to seamlessly rotate from civil to criminal, from juvenile to family, to understand and apply difficult and often novel legal principles and theories. No judge can know every aspect of the law in the different divisions of the courts. Effective continuing judicial education is a vital component to a sound judiciary. The better trained and educated each judge is, the more confidence you (and the public) will have in the decisions that judge makes.
For those who say: Why can’t you just watch a video? Ask yourself honestly, which is the more effective delivery system for continuing education—watching a video or attending a live conference, where you can speak with the presenter, with other attendees, participate in discussions and breakout groups, ask questions, and clarify issues? This is not to say that videotaped presentations, webcams, videconferencing and other long-distance delivery systems cannot be utilized effectively, depending on a number of factors, including the subject matter, number and location of attendees, available technology, need for interactive discussion, etc. These alternative formats are already being used on a limited basis and likely will see expanded use in the future. But I think we must fairly acknowledge they should not be relied upon to the exclusion of the unique benefits gained at an education conference.
5. OK, But What About Those Luxury Resorts?
In December the Circuit Court Conference will be held at the Downtown Hyatt in Jacksonville. I’m sure it is a nice hotel. I’m not sure I would characterize it as a luxury resort. But that aside, it is true that past conferences have been held at some very nice hotels throughout Florida. However, where we hold our conferences is dictated in large part by two things: a) negotiating a state rate for rooms (currently our contracts with hotels are negotiated at approximately $110 per night for each room); and b) finding a hotel with facilities to hold 700-800 people. To the extent we do have conferences at places which some label as “resorts” it is done within budget, and with the understanding that we must make the conference location attractive enough to convince judges to attend.
No one would deny that there is a social aspect to judicial conferences. Judges are people too (well most of us anyway), and most judges work very hard every day. The conference should provide an opportunity to meet and greet, to get to know their brethren from across the state and to exchange ideas and thoughts about what we do and how we do it, in an effort to improve our system. We also conduct business at the conferences, including election of officers, holding committee meetings, planning future education conferences, approval of the budget, and discussion of pending and impending issues of interest to the entire Conference membership.
The planning of our conferences does not simply happen overnight. Sites are chosen, dates are selected and contracts are negotiated two years in advance. Education programming is discussed and planned and faculty is selected and committed. Time, money and energies are devoted throughout the two-year period to ensure a successful conference. It is not a simple task to simply “cancel” these conferences. Canceling a contract with a hotel weeks or months before the conference can have significant implications financially and in terms of future negotiations with the hotel. We must be especially sensitive to these issues given the already small universe of locations that can accommodate a Conference of our size and at our rate.
The judiciary understands that the money we spend on judicial education comes from public coffers. We have not spent it frivolously and will not do so in the future. In these difficult economic times, we are exploring every reasonable method of belt-tightening. We don’t pretend to have all the answers, nor are we suggesting that no changes should be implemented. But please know that we are continuing to ask the difficult questions of ourselves and of our Conferences in search of the most fiscally sound manner to continue delivering high-quality education to our judiciary.