Thursday, April 5, 2018

Judicial Experience in Florida

It occurred to me recently that the Florida Office of Judges of Compensation Claims has had a significant number of new judicial appointments in recent years. I reflected upon that as I contemplated the impending appointments for Districts Gainesville and Tallahassee. 

Judge Lazzara is one of the OJCC's longest-serving judges; first appointed in 1990, he has served for 28 years. That is not a record, former Judge Alan Kuker served for 40 years (1973-2013). In fact, Judge Lazzara is not even the longest-serving JCC on the bench today. Judge Lewis (FTL) was first appointed in 1988, so currently has served 30 years (and still looks like he is 40 years old). 

The Statewide Judicial Nominating Commission will meet again in August 2018. The Commission will be interviewing to replace three more veteran judges, Judges Hogan (FTL), Lorenzen (TPA), and Spangler (TPA). Between them, they have 38 years of judicial experience. And, reflecting on these retirements, it seemed there has recently been an unprecedented level of judicial turnover. But, when things "seem," it is advisable to check the data. 

There are multiple methods for quantifying judicial experience. One could examine the aggregate years of experience that the population of adjudicators represents (like the 38 years of the three judges above). But, this would ignore the fluctuations in overall judicial volume. Though there are currently 32 JCCs, that has not been the case historically. In fact, fifty years ago (1968) there were roughly half that many. Since 1968, the population has grown from 6.5 million to about 21.5 million. As Florida's population has tripled, the JCCs available to determine disputes has roughly doubled. 

Concluding that aggregate years of experience would thus not accurately provide a comparison, it seemed an average years of experience would both provide an empirical comparison and account for fluctuations in the volume of judges. As I worked to calculate years of experience (calculated every two years) an adage came to me. Many times I have been told of Judge Fontaine's (TLH 1965-1990) observation that "it takes one term to figure out what you are doing" as a judge. If accurate, then it may be worthwhile to know how many judges on the bench  at a given time have four years (one term) or less experience. 

At the present, Florida Judges have an average of 8.7 years of experience on the bench. Thus, just over two four-year terms. However with the new 2018 appointments expected in GNS, TLH, FTL, and TPA, that average will decrease in 2019 to just under two terms, to 7.7 years of experience. That average at first glance may seem low, and it is the lowest in several years. However, in 2000, the average was 7 years, and in 1994 6.3 years. 

But, the analysis is more intriguing fifty years ago. In 1968, the Judges of Industrial Claims ("JIC") were not appointed by the Governor as JCCs are today. There was an Industrial Commission appointed pursuant to Section 440.44, and pursuant to Section 440.45(1967) the Commission appointed JICs as it deemed appropriate, subject to "approval of the governor." In 1968, the JICs averaged 3.3 years of experience on the bench. 


In 1974, Section 440.45 was amended, and the governor became responsible for appointment of adjudicators. The average years of experience increased reasonably steadily through the 1970s, peaking at 6.5 years in 1978. For whatever reason, the average receded in 1980, but had returned to 6.6 years in 1982. The average then increased in the 1980s, approaching ten years for most of the decade. 

In the 1990s, the averages were primarily close to 8 years, with an average of 8.2 years in 2000, the highest in a decade. The 2000s demonstrated increasing averages, ending with 10.4 years in 2010. At the time, that was the highest average experience recorded. And, for the first part of the 2010s the average continued to increase, remaining over 11 years 2012-2016. However, currently the average is 8.7 and is expected to decrease to 7.7 in 2019. 


The analysis of judges with 4 years or less experience (above) yields similar data. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, well over 60% of JIC had four years experience or less. That percentage decreased in the late 1970s, Following a return to the mid 40% in the early 1980s, the percentage remained below 30% in the late 1980s. The 1990s demonstrated increase, with multiple years approaching 50% of judges with four years or less. However, the period 2006 through 2016 illustrates demonstrates percentages consistently below 25%. 

Thus, although the current 41% and projected 47% may seem higher than normal to some observers, it appears those percentages are not inconsistent with the historical record. On the contrary, it appears that the dozen years 2006-2016 instead represent percentages that are exceptional for their low level and their consistency. In other words, the current experience level is more consistent with history, and the last dozen years have perhaps been an anomaly. 

Thus, the data supports that the OJCC experience level has demonstrated fluctuations over the last 50 years. The information may illustrate to some a tendency of cyclical experience levels. Judges come, serve, mature, and retire. The retirement and replacement of judges, the cyclical process of gaining experience, the struggle to find exceptional replacements; these are all just part of who and what the OJCC are. 

As a whole, this adjudication system will miss those who move on to new challenges. And history has shown us that new, bright, motivated candidates will step forward to fill their shoes. Admittedly, those shoes may be tough to fill, but no one I know ever took this job because they thought it would be easy.  

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