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Seminole Tribal Court among ‘Florida’s Other Courts’ in new book

The verdict is in and it finds that in the case of the lack in understanding legal history in Florida, the people are not guilty. When it comes to learning about the legal system, most people simply learn the traditional and most common court systems in the U.S. While understanding today’s most popular courts is essential, there is an array of alternative court systems, as well as a long and turning history of courts, that provide valuable insight into local and national communities.

Robert Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University in Davie, recognized this and decided to compile this uncommon information in his new book, “Florida’s Other Courts: Unconventional Justice in the Sunshine State.” The book is a compilation of articles and research, some written by him, explaining the history of Florida’s general jurisdiction courts and the details of special jurisdiction courts in the state, which includes those belonging to the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes.

The Tribune spoke to Jarvis to learn about his inspiration for the new book and understand how he balances a career in higher education with his knack for research and his life outside of the office.

What initially attracted you to creating a book that discusses unknown courts in Florida?

I was teaching a course at the law school called American Legal History and in that course students have to write a paper on some little known aspects of American legal history. A student came to me and said they want to do a paper about Miami’s black courts. … Some professor had already published an article all about this court. I couldn’t believe it so I read it and said it was amazing. I wondered if there are other courts in Florida’s history that have this kind of pedigree that nobody knew about. At the same time I had been working on an article about courts that had existed in Florida when Florida was a British territory. When we think of Florida’s history we think of it as having a Spanish history because the Spaniards were in control of Florida from roughly 1513 up until 1819. During those years there was a 20- year period where we were actually a British territory and very few people know that.

So it occurred to me that I’m working on my article on British law and court and here’s an article on this black court in Miami in the 1950s. Is there some way to put these two under the same group because if I publish my article [by itself] then nobody is going to find it. It seemed like there was a connection here between two little-known courts so I started to think and look into where there are other courts. What I found of course was that the Seminoles were talking about setting up a court for the tribe and that led me to find that the Miccosukees have had a court since 1981. … It all just kind of came together.

…The second half of the book is really current courts that are not part of the federal-state court structure, including the religious courts, military courts and Native American courts. … I don’t think anybody realizes that tribes like the Seminoles and the Miccosukees have their own tribal courts and I think that’s going to make this a very eye-opening book.

How do you think these courts remained unknown for so long?

It depends on what court we’re talking about. When the Spaniards gave up Florida in 1819 they literally packed up everything that was not nailed down and took it back home to Spain. That’s the first problem; they didn’t leave any records in the United States so you have to go look at the records in Spain. … You could get into the files in Madrid but the problem was that they were all in Spanish.

When the British were kicked out by the Spaniards, they took all of their records with them to London, so if you want to look at those, you have to go to London. Some of their records are in the United States but they existed for such a short period of time that there weren’t a lot of records.

…The Miccosukee courts are a lot like the religious courts in that they don’t really write down a lot of information; a lot of it is oral. They’re a very private tribe and don’t really share information. Whereas the Seminoles are a very open tribe and they interface a lot with non-tribal members. But their court is so new; they didn’t set up their court until 2015 and as a result there isn’t yet a lot known about the court. When writing about the Seminole court, we got most of our information from the Seminoles through The Tribune because they did a lot of articles – most while study groups were studying whether to have a court and how to set it up – and after the judges were selected they had interviews with the judges and of course when the judges were sworn in, that’s where the photo on the front of the book comes from. Unfortunately, though there wasn’t a lot to say about the court [because it was so new when we were writing about it]. If we were to write the book 20 years from now we would have had more to say, but writing it in 2015 all we could say is that the court had been set up. The Seminoles have really modeled their courts after federal and state standard courts. They take the rules and procedures that we use in the regular legal system.

…Our hope was to lift the veil a little bit to point out that there are courts you don’t even know about.

What is your editing process?

It went really quickly I was pretty surprised. … At the end of October of 2014 I wrote an email to all of the people who are in the book saying they have either written something that we can edit and turn it into a chapter in the book or there is nothing but you seem like somebody who can write a chapter. By November of 2014 everybody who is in the book said yes. We agreed I would get all the chapters by December 2015 – people had a year to either take what they had done in the past and clean it up or to write from scratch. … I had all the chapters by April of 2016 which was really very good that within 4 months of the deadline everybody had everything in. I started editing in April of 2016 and really worked hard during that summer so that by October 2016 everything was edited and it went to University Press of Florida.

Did you learn anything new through this process?

It was such an eye-opening book. You learn from every book that you do and I’ve done around two dozen books, either as an author, co-author, editor or contributor, so you always learn. This book was particularly eye-opening though.

… Everything that’s in the book – literally every sentence and every paragraph – is like ‘wow I never knew that’ because why would you?

Why do you think it’s important to understand the less common court systems within the state?

The biggest challenge law students have today, like every student, is finding a job after you graduate. The first thing I hope that they get out of this book is that they should explore, not just following the conventional route. … One of the things that we do in the Native American chapter is we produce the want ad the Seminoles published that said they want lawyers to help the judges because the judges of the Seminole Court aren’t lawyers and in order to be able to do their jobs, they created the position of legal advisor. I’m not saying there are a lot of these positions, but it’s something to think about.

… The second thing I hope they get out of it is to realize there are a lot of disputes that have real consequences for the people involved that never go to court.

If you’re going to be a lawyer you have to be well-read. You never know when you might face a situation you haven’t encountered before that your standard training has not prepared you for. The more you read and the more you know, the more valuable you become. Someone might come into your office with a problem and if you can come up with a knowledgeable solution that doesn’t rely on standard processes you might be doing a great service for your client. It’s incumbent on lawyers to be reading throughout their career on all sorts of subjects. I hope this book will encourage students that they have to keep learning. … I think that’s true whether you’re a journalist, a plumber, a lawyer or a doctor because if you just become a very technical specialist and are very narrowly focused within your field you’re wearing blinders and you’re not as valuable. Too many students think they can stop learning when they graduate and get their degree, but learning goes on your entire career.

How did you go from a college law professor to a book editor?

There are three things any professor has to do; one is teaching. In addition to teaching, you’re also expected to do service, which is pretty easy because all schools have committees and other activities. The third thing you have to do is write and publish because if you don’t publish you’re not going to keep your job, especially if you’re on a tenure track. Once you get tenure a big chunk of your future pay raises is based on what you have written. Everybody tells you to write, but nobody tells you what to write. That’s both the joy and the horror of being a professor – you can write about whatever interests you but the horror is you sit there and try to figure out a topic to write about. Nobody wants to write stuff that’s already been written; people want to read stuff that’s new and innovative and different that the world has never seen before. So, I’ve been writing books as part of being a professor.

This project was very important today. I could have just said that black court thing was interesting and somebody’s published an article, but it was very important to me to bring all these writings and essays together in one book so when somebody picks it up it will all be at their fingertips. If you found my British article written as an article and you wondered if there are any other unusual courts in Florida you wouldn’t know how to go find articles about them because you wouldn’t know what you’re looking for.

Do you plan to create more books in the future?

Oh yeah. Right now I’m working on a book that’s due at the end of this year and another that’s due at the end of next year. … I have all kinds of projects. By the time I retire I will still have more projects that I’ll never get to. I am resigned to the fact that I will never write every book that I’d like to write.

How do you manage to juggle two careers with your personal life?

That’s the problem all professors face – how do you find the time to prepare for class and to do research and to serve on committees and to have a personal life. … Some professors are more successful at figuring out work-life issues and finding a good balance. I’ve never found a good balance. I’m somewhat unusual in that I don’t have kids and my wife is an attorney and she works ridiculous amounts of hours. So, I have no work-life balance; I just have work because my wife just has work. I’ve never really had a problem finding time to get my work done and write books and those types of things because I don’t have other demands. Some of my colleagues take my breath away. They’re handling spouses, kids and elderly parents. It can be very challenging. Like most professors I get most of my writing done during summer break and the holidays when we don’t have class. If you really want to get something done you will find a way to get it done. …That’s the whole thing – if you find something that you love you’ll never work a day in your life.

What advice do you have for people who may want to research material for their own books?

You have to write about something that either comes from your life experience or you have to be prepared to spend a lot of time doing a lot of research and talking to a lot of people. I always tell people for their first book, write about something they’ve experienced. Then early on in the process try to find somebody who has book experience because they will be able to [mentor you] on the book. … you can’t do it completely on your own. You need somebody who can give you guidance.

…I think the most important thing if you want to do a book is it’s a long process. You have to be really committed for the long haul. You have to really want it.

The Seminole Tribe created its Tribal Court in 2015, inaugurating the first panel of six justices and judges Feb. 19 that year. The court is a two-tiered court with a trial and appellate court – the trial court having authority over civil disputes and the appellate court having the authority to review final decisions of the trial court.

“Florida’s Other Courts” will be available Feb. 27 from University Press of Florida. To learn more about the book or purchase it online, visit upf.com.

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Li Cohen
When she isn't drinking a [probably excessive] cup of coffee, Li is reading and writing about local, national and international news. She can also be seen running around NYC in preparation of marathon season and travelling to new lands. Make sure to check out her work at liyakira.com, send her an email at liyakira9410@gmail.com and follow her journeys on Twitter (@WritingLiYakira) and Instagram (@LiYakira).
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