Carlton: Why Florida's judges suddenly have to fill out time cards

Published Oct. 15, 2015

The Legend of the Missing Judges goes like this:

Pass through your local courthouse on any given Friday and you'll see fewer busy courtrooms than tumbleweeds rolling down empty halls. Need a judge to sign a warrant? Good luck.

Judges who work long hours bristle at this depiction. If courtrooms are dark, they say, they're often working at their desks in chambers.

Either way, you might expect to see courtrooms around Florida particularly well attended this month and judicial parking lots full up to the dinner bell.

From late September through most of October, every trial judge in Florida is part of a Judicial Workload Study. Judges are to dutifully record their work hours online — what kinds of courtroom matters they're handling, how long they spend on legal research or community activities, even lunch.

"It's basically keeping a time sheet," said Hillsborough Chief Judge Ron Ficarrotta.

Years have passed since an update on the judges' workload, and they will tell you much has changed. Look at DNA, now a time-consuming part of criminal trials.

"Part of it is to try and figure out what it is the judges do," said Pinellas Circuit Judge Pam Campbell. "What are you spending most of your time on?"

The information gathered will ultimately be used "to determine judicial need," according to a memo from the Florida Supreme Court. Fun fact: Florida has not added a new trial judgeship since 2007.

And given the judiciary's sometimes prickly relationship with the Legislature, this could be interesting.

Campbell said she's never seen a time with this much tension between the branches of government. "And it's sad, and I wish more legislators would come and see what goes on in the courtrooms."

So, how do judges feel about being judged, or at least having to account for their hours? I'm told there has been only mild pushback, that judges wondered why it didn't apply to appeals courts or whether the information was public record that could be used come election time.

"I think for the most part, everybody understands the chief justice has asked us to do it," Campbell said. "If the chief justice thinks something good is coming along, I think we'll follow the lead."

Being a judge is a pretty good gig — prestige, good retirement, robe and parking space. Do judges work hard? I think of driving past construction workers. You see them at back-breaking labor, swinging hammers to bust concrete. Or you see five guys busy supervising while one digs a hole.

Years ago when I was a reporter starting out at the courthouse, a TV station caught a couple of judges in decidedly non-judicial activities during work hours: grocery shopping, or, in one memorable case, golfing. (As courthouse lore had it, when that judge walked into a meeting ever after, someone whispered, "Fore!")

I've seen tumbleweeds. And I've seen judges work as steadily as that cartoon sheepdog who punches a time clock for a long day chasing the wolf till the company whistle sounds. Judges take trials into the night. Some diehards drive their bailiffs, court reporters and clerks to despair with their long hours.

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This study probably won't get to legislators until the 2017 session. Then, it will be interesting to see if that hourly accounting changes legend into a more layered reality of what judges do and do not do.