Supreme Court Asks for More Judges

By: Kathleen Haughney, The News Service of Florida
By: Kathleen Haughney, The News Service of Florida

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, February 17, 2011 --

Florida’s high court told lawmakers Thursday the state’s judicial system needs 80 additional judges to meet the demands placed on courthouses around the state with foreclosure cases still crowding dockets and employee layoffs creating a backlog of work.

Yet, with a $3.6 billion budget shortfall for the coming fiscal year, lawmakers are looking to slash budgets for most state agencies, something that Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady acknowledged in a written opinion even as he asked lawmakers to consider pumping a few more dollars into the third branch of government.

“With over one million Floridians unemployed and significant deficits in the state budget, we recognize that funding new judgeships will compete with other critical state priorities,” he wrote. “Nonetheless, the reality is that Florida’s circuit and county judges are overloaded with new filings, have substantial caseloads, and have fewer support staff to assist with the disposition of cases. Taken together, these factors continue to hamper the effective administration of justice in Florida.”

Florida’s judicial system has taken a budgetary beating for the past several years, with substantial cuts hitting not only judges and their employees, but also public defenders and prosecutors. Over the past four years, the court system alone has lost more than 290 staff positions, chipping away at case managers, magistrates, court reporters, interpreters and clerks.

“The loss of staff translates into slower case processing times, crowded dockets, and long waits to access judicial calendars,” Canady wrote. “Another consequence of high caseloads and reduced staff support is less judicial time spent on hearings. Some of our judges believe that the quality of justice being delivered today is suffering because they do not have adequate time to devote to each case. We find that observation troubling.”

The Florida Bar and several business groups have been lobbying the Legislature for the past few years to better fund the state court system. The Florida Chamber Foundation, last month, released a study that concluded that for Florida to lower unemployment and attract new business the state must maintain an “attractive business climate” by recruiting and retaining judges. Key to that, the Chamber said in its study, was giving judges competitive salaries and manageable workloads with an adequate support staff.

“It is also recommended that investing in the judicial system be considered an economic development foundation of the state,” the study said. “The efficient and prompt adjudication of commercial disputes is critical to the business climate of Florida. Adequate funding of the judicial system would improve the ability of the state to attract, expand and retain high-skill, high-wage jobs.”

For the Chamber report, the Coral Gables-based Washington Economics Group surveyed 1,147 current and senior Florida judges, plus about 900 randomly-selected lawyers.

The problem facing the judiciary is that lawmakers aren’t likely to choose them when they have to decide where to put state dollars. Elementary schools and health services for low income senior citizens look a whole lot more appealing.

The state will have to trim at least $3.6 billion from the 2011/12 budget, but legislative leaders have not yet determined exactly how much will be pared from the criminal and civil justice system.

State Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who chairs the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee, said knows the courts are overburdened, particularly with the heavy number of foreclosure cases clogging court dockets.

In 2007, the court recorded 182,044 foreclosure filings. In 2008, that number jumped to 368,742 and increased again in 2009 with 399,120 filings. The total number for 2010 was not immediately available from the court. ( RealtyTrac, a California-based company that follows foreclosure activity, said 485,286 Florida properties received a foreclosure filing in 2010, the second highest total in the country. Not all those cases, however, end up in court.)

Without a substantial loss in caseload or a major increase in staff, judges have said cases that once took one to three months to dispose of are now taking six to nine months. Last year, the Legislature allocated extra money to help the courts deal with the foreclosure issue and some courts have utilized retired judges to help clear the dockets, but it still isn’t enough for some judicial circuits.

Fasano said several of his local judges have spoken to him about the caseload problems and he believes Canady’s view on the need for more judges is accurate. But in a tight budget year, there just aren’t many options to help the court system, he said.

“I don’t know if there’s anything we can do,” Fasano said. “It’s a money issue.”

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