The Florida Justice Institute, Inc. (FJI) was founded in 1978 by Roderick N. Petrey while serving as Executive Vice President of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation in New York City.  Rod was and still is a leading figure in securing funding for public interest law programs across the country.  Upon leaving the Clark Foundation to enter the private practice of law in Miami, Rod was given a start-up grant to establish FJI.  Rod’s initial mission for FJI, a private, not-for-profit, public interest law organization, was to:

  • Improve the administration of justice for all Floridians;
  • Encourage better representation of citizens’ interests; and
  • Increase the ability of citizens to resolve disputes quickly and inexpensively.

FJI was to accomplish these goals by working with existing organizations to identify major, unmet needs in the community and address them with advocacy and litigation.

FJI’s initial Board of Directors, in addition to Rod, included LeRoy Collins, former Governor and Undersecretary of Commerce; Chesterfield Smith, former President of The Florida Bar and American Bar Association and managing partner at Holland & Knight; John Edward Smith, a partner at Steel Hector & Davis; Hugh McMillan, Jr., former Legislative Counsel for Governor Askew and in private practice; and Eleanor Mitchell Hunter, Assistant General Counsel to the Governor and eventual Executive Director of the Florida Board of Bar Examiners.

After incorporating the organization, establishing the Board, and obtaining section 501(c)(3) charitable status, FJI hired Randall C. “Randy” Berg, Jr. in 1978 to be its Executive Director, a position he still holds today.

FJI’s First Cases

Randy was given several major tasks when starting FJI.  First, he was to work with a number of talented lawyers to put together the largest and only statewide jail conditions class action ever successfully brought in the country.   The case came to be known as Arias v. Wainwright, Case No. TCA 79-0792, N.D. Fla., and was a class action challenge to the Florida Department of Corrections’ failure to promulgate jail regulations, inspect county jails, and enforce jail standards in Florida’s 211 jails, which had resulted in horrid living conditions for the thousands of people housed in those facilities.  A settlement in 1981 brought tremendous relief, and over the course of the 15 year consent decree, crowded and unsanitary jails were either closed or significantly improved largely due to enforcement lawsuits brought against non-complying counties by the FDOC.

Second, FJI was to establish a pro bono program for the Dade County Bar Association and Legal Services of Greater Miami.  Established in 1979, the pro bono program – then called the Public Interest Law Bank and later renamed Put Something Back – quickly gained nationwide recognition and received the Harrison Tweed Award from the ABA as the country’s best pro bono program.  Randy later worked nationwide as a pro bono consultant for the ABA and the Legal Services Corporation (LSC).

Third, FJI was to publish various self-help publications such as the Older Floridians Handbook: Laws and Programs Affecting Older Floridians.  First published in 1979, this immensely popular Handbook has been updated and republished 5 times.

The Saga of IOLTA

In the late 1970s, funding for civil legal services for the poor was scarce, and no steady funding source existed to maintain the few programs working to meet the growing demand.  The solution was the Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Account (IOLTA) program, which would use the interest earned on money held for short periods of time in lawyers’ trust accounts to fund legal services programs.   With an idea first proposed by Florida Supreme Court Justice Arthur England, Jr., FJI worked with the President of The Florida Bar Foundation in drafting the pleadings and amicus briefs to the Florida Supreme Court, to convince the Court to create the first IOLTA program in the country.  After securing Court approval and later obtaining IRS and banking regulatory approvals in 1981, Florida began implementation of its trust account program.  FJI played an instrumental role in establishing and hiring staff for The Florida Bar Foundation, the organization that continues to this day to collect and distribute Florida’s IOLTA funds. In January 1983, FJI put together and hosted the National IOLTA Conference in Tampa to encourage and assist states in starting IOLTA programs.

After the Conference, the President of LSC requested and funded FJI to head up a national effort to establish IOLTA programs nationwide, and the National IOLTA Clearinghouse was born at FJI in 1983.   The Clearinghouse was a wonderfully collaborative effort of many talented bar leaders, justices, and legal services attorneys that helped create IOLTA programs all over the country.  The Clearinghouse drafted court orders and model legislation, produced newsletters, and defended challenges to the program’s constitutionality in 7 states, including on two trips to the U.S. Supreme Court, with the final lawsuit ending in 2003.  As a result of this work, IOLTA programs now exist in every state and the District of Columbia, and to date they have created over $3.5 billion to fund legal services for the poor.

The ABA recently produced a 17 minute video on the history of IOLTA.  A 3 minute version of the video can be found here.

Volunteer Lawyers Project

From 1993 to 2014, FJI housed, administered, and supervised the Volunteer Lawyers Project for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida, which helped find pro bono lawyers for pro se litigants in federal court. Thanks to the VLP’s efforts, numerous pro se litigants who could not afford a lawyer were able to get a fair day in court with the help of pro bono representation.

Other Major Accomplishments

Prisoners’ Rights

  • Ancata v. Prison Health Services, 769 F.2d 700 (11th Cir. 1985).  This landmark appellate decision established for the first time that private correctional actors operate under color of state law and are therefore liable for constitutional violations, and contracting government officials have a non-delegable duty to provide medical care for inmates despite the contract for services.  This case also helped define what constitutes deliberate indifference to serious medical needs under the 8th Amendment.
  • Stapleton v. Singletary, No. 88-14178-civ-JCP, S.D. Fla., affirmed, 52 F.3d 1071 (11th Cir. 1995).  This case was a class action constitutional challenge to Florida’s system of protective custody, which held inmates who feared for their lives in isolation for extended periods of time.  The resulting settlement completely changed the Florida Department of Corrections’ protective custody procedures and the conditions for those being held there.
  • Raines v. Florida, 983 F.Supp. 1362 (N.D. Fla. 1997).  This statewide class action arose out of the FDOC’s refusal to allow inmates with disabilities to perform certain certain jobs, thus limiting the amount of gain time they could earn, which resulted in them serving longer sentences.  The case was brought under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and resulted in a wide-reaching settlement that forced the FDOC to provide the same gain time opportunities to all inmates, regardless of any perceived disability.
  • Osterback v. Moore, Case No. 97-2806-civ-Huck (S.D. Fla. 1997).  This statewide class action sought to reform the FDOC’s solitary confinement system, which warehoused thousands of people, often for years on end, with little or no mental health treatment and no viable method of being returned to the general population.  The settlement that was reached resulted in a drastic reduction in the number of people held in solitary, greater mental health treatment, and a required step-down method for eventual return to the general population.
  • Haney v. Miami-Dade County, No. 1:04-CV-20516, 2004 WL 2203481 (S.D. Fla. 2004).  In the wake of the mass arrests that occurred after the FTAA protests in Miami, lawyers for FJI received information that the Miami-Dade County jail was strip-searching the female arrestees, but not the male arrestees, who had been arrested for minor offenses and with no individualized suspicion. FJI brought suit on behalf of a class of women to stop this practice. The case eventually settled for $6.25 million to be split among the class of plaintiffs. As a result of the lawsuit, Miami-Dade County changed its policy to allow strip searches prior to a first appearance before a judge only if the charged offense involved violence, weapons, or drugs, or if there was some other individualized suspicion relating to contraband.

 Housing Discrimination

  • Burstyn v. City of Miami Beach, 663 F.Supp. 528 (S.D. Fla. 1987).  This case was a challenge to Miami Beach’s efforts to eliminate adult congregate living facilities from Miami Beach with a restrictive zoning ordinance.  The ordinance was struck as unconstitutional in violation of Equal Protection Clause for intentional discrimination against elderly poor residents of Miami Beach.
  • Chinye v. Milton, Case No. 93-1003-civ-Ferguson (S.D. Fla.).  This case was a class action against an apartment complex with over 650 units, whose employees were systematically refusing to rent apartments to African-Americans.  The case settled for $1.25 million and a three year consent decree.

Voting & Electoral Challenges

  • Armstrong v. Harris, 773 So.2d 7 (Fla. 2000). In a constitutional challenge by Florida’s religious leaders to a ballot resolution amending Florida’s Constitution, the Florida Supreme Court struck as unconstitutional the amendment changing the Constitution’s cruel or unusual punishment clause as being misleading after it had passed by 72.8% of the voting public.
  • Socialist Workers Party v. Leahy, 145 F.3d 1240 (11th Cir. 1998). This case was a successful constitutional challenge to the State of Florida’s bonding requirement for minor political parties.
  • Florida Caucus of Black State Legislators v. Crosby, 877 So.2d 861 (Fla. 1st DCA 2004).  This case was a successful challenge to the FDOC’s systemic failure to assist formerly incarcerated people with getting their civil rights restored.

For information on our more recent cases, see the Our Impact page.  If you’d like to help FJI continue this work, visit our Donate page.

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