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Courts can't handle cuts, justice argues

When the economy falters, local courthouses get busy.

Mortgage foreclosures spike. Domestic violence surges. Crimes increase.

Florida Supreme Court Justice Peggy A. Quince is asking state leaders to spare the courts from further budget cuts so judges can contend with those increasing caseloads.

In a letter dated Thursday to lawmakers and Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, Quince asks that the courts be excluded from a 4 percent holdback in spending that Gov. Charlie Crist has ordered for all state agencies.

Crist issued the order in June in anticipation that slackening state revenue would fall short of the pared-down state budget for 2008-09.

"We are increasingly concerned about our ability to carry out the mission of the third branch and we ask for your consideration of these requests," Quince writes.

Local court officials say they are already seeing evidence of the worsening economy flushing people into the court system. Plus, budget cuts earlier this year forced layoffs, increasing workloads for remaining workers even before demand rose.

"Crime goes up when things get worse," said Public Defender Bob Dillinger, who has seen misdemeanor cases spike 10 percent. "People steal gas, they steal food. They get laid off, they feel desperate."

Mortgage foreclosures have skyrocketed. In Pinellas County, 3,000 mortgage foreclosures were filed in the first three months of this year — almost as many as were filed in all of 2006. Foreclosures doubled in Pasco County as well, to nearly 5,000 last year. Statewide, foreclosures are up 365 percent over the last two years.

Pinellas Judge Raymond Gross said Friday that domestic violence and family law cases also increase when the economy goes south.

"One of the biggest drivers of domestic relations cases in general are family finances and the pressure that come from that," Gross said.

Pinellas court officials acknowledge that state agencies are suffering, but say the courts are unique in that about 90 percent of their budget goes toward salaries.

Statewide, about half of the court salary budget goes to the state's 990 judges, whose seats cannot be cut and whose salaries are set by state law.

"I think they have to take a long, hard look and realize that the core function that the court serves … deals with so many aspects of the core mission of the state of Florida," Gross said. "And they can't just cut the courts like it's an agency."

Sink had not seen the letter Friday but will review it over the weekend, said spokeswoman Tara Klimek.

"She is concerned and has been very concerned about the budget cuts and how they affect our justice system," Klimek said.

Courts can't handle cuts, justice argues 08/01/08 [Last modified: Saturday, August 2, 2008 7:49pm]
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