Justice Teaching Institute: Teachers from throughout Florida are selected to spend a week in Tallahassee working with the Supreme Court justices learning first-hand about the judicial system using a case-study approach.
Facing surveys showing widespread misunderstandings about the state's legal system and the courts, the Supreme Court of Florida launched its inaugural Justice Teaching Institute for secondary teachers May 7-8, 1997 as part of the Court's Sesquicentennial Celebration. Twenty-six teachers from throughout Florida were selected to participate in the Institute spearheaded by Chief Justice Gerald Kogan. "This was a wonderfully enriching experience," stated one teacher. "I feel much better about our justice system and much better prepared to teach it...this has been a real privilege."
The program was born at the start of Chief Justice Gerald Kogan's administration, when a survey by the state's Judicial Management Council showed two disturbing trends. First, Floridians knew so little about the state's legal system that the vast majority could not answer basic questions about how it works. Second, Floridians overwhelmingly obtain information about the court system from the news media, but would rather obtain it directly from the courts.
In mid-1996, Chief Justice Kogan created a multifaceted program called the "Access Initiative" designed both to improve public access to courts and make the court system a proactive educator, as the public itself desires. Both short-term and long-term elements were part of the Access Initiative. But perhaps the most important long-term component has been the Justice Teaching Institute.
Institute teachers explored justice and the framework for judicial decision making in our state courts during the inaugural program. The Institute included substantive sessions on the structure and function of the state court system, history of the Supreme Court, constitutional issues, technology, dispute resolution, and a trail of justice tour. Teachers participated in mock oral arguments on assisted suicide and then observed the actual case being heard by the Supreme Court of Florida.
Institute teachers had the opportunity to participate in a dialogue with Chief Justice Gerald Kogan, Justice Ben F. Overton, and Justice Major B. Harding. Potential Article V issues before the Florida Constitution Revision Commission were highlighted in a session with Debbie Kearney, of the Governor's office. A town hall meeting was held to allow teachers the opportunity to discuss their views on access to the legal system. In a closing ceremonial session of the Court for the graduates, Justice Harding and Annette Boyd Pitts, Executive Director of the Florida Law Related Education Association, Inc. awarded each teacher with a certificate and the honor of "Justice Institute Fellow" status. "I have never before felt so appreciated and important," commented one teacher. "Justice Anstead shook my hand and thanked me for teaching our children!" "I've been living with goosebumps for 2 days," she added.
Reactions to the inaugural institute were consistently positive. Institute evaluations reflected the graduates' assessment. "It was extremely informative and well organized...I've learned more in two days than in some of my entire college courts," commented one participant. Another participant stated, "The Institute was spectacular, this was the most informative seminar I have EVER attended!"
The Institute has become an annual event of the Court. Sesquicentennial Commission Education Subcommittee chair Annette Pitts reported, "The Supreme Court of Florida has created a model of national and international prominence." "We hope local judges in county and circuit courts will work with teachers to expand these educational efforts," Pitts added.
Funding for the Institute has been provided by the Florida Bar Foundation. The professional development model is sponsored annually at the Supreme Court of Florida.