TALLAHASSEE (AP) _ Peggy Quince said she'll focus on budget problems, bias, mentally ill prisoners and foster children after receiving the gavel Friday as the first black woman to head Florida's court system.
Quince, 60, became the Florida Supreme Court's 53rd chief justice to the applause of a packed courtroom. The crowd included family and friends from as far back as her days in segregated schools in her native Virginia.
The biggest challenge going into her two-year term will be coping with budget cuts that have slashed court system spending by nearly $44 million, or about 9 percent, in the past 12 months.
Falling tax revenue caused by a depressed economy has resulted in budget cuts of more than $5 billion across state government in that span.
Quince said if the court system, which represents less than 1 percent of the overall state budget, receives any more cuts it'll mean backlogs for low-priority cases such as foreclosures, which have mushroomed because of the nation's credit crisis.
“We must and we can, with the help of everyone, make sure the court system has the funding that it needs so that every citizen and every kind of case that comes before the court can be taken care of effectively and efficiently,'' Quince said.
Florida Bar president Jay White said he's committed to working with Quince to find a permanent funding source for the courts. While gasoline taxes are committed to road building and utility taxes to school construction, the courts must compete with other agencies for general revenue.
Quince announced she's already created a task force to compile oral and written histories of black lawyers in Florida. She said she hopes the history will help overcome a perception of bias in the state's court system identified in a recent report by a Supreme Court panel on bias and fairness.
“When people really get to know each other and understand something about other groups then we don't allow ourselves to succumb to the stereotyping that we hear,'' she said.
The survey of court participants found racial and ethnic minorities, women, the disabled and gays do not always feel that they receive bias-free treatment from judges and other court personnel.
“You may lose, but you should still come before our court system feeling that you have been treated fairly,'' she said.
She appealed to the state's lawyers to volunteer for a state program that helps foster children prepare to fend for themselves when they reach adulthood at 18.
Quince said she'll continue efforts by outgoing Chief Justice R. Fred Lewis to change the way Florida treats the mentally ill.
“Our jails and prisons should not and cannot continue to be the psychiatric hospitals that no longer exist,'' Quince said.
Lewis presented the gavel to Quince. He'll remain on the court. The position traditionally rotates to the most senior justice who has not yet held it.
Gov. Lawton Chiles and Jeb Bush, then governor-elect, jointly appointed Quince to the Supreme Court on Dec. 8, 1998, four days before Chiles died in office.
Quince is the second black and third woman to serve as chief justice in Florida.
Her husband, Fred Buckine, also a lawyer, recalled meeting her in Washington, D.C., where she began her career after earning degrees from Howard University and Catholic University of America.
“Being poor, I thought I'd get myself a black diamond because diamonds are very valuable,'' Buckine said. “They're beautiful. They're hard. But they're always there.''
Pictured above is Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Peggy Quince.