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Hernando commission needs to ask: Do we really need all these judges?

I've wondered about this for a while.

When I arrived here 25 years ago, two judges — aided only by an occasional visiting judge — handled all of Hernando County's court cases.

Now, we have eight of them — one shared with Citrus — and, probably, one more on the way in the short term. Long term, in another 25 years, the number of judges is expected to double.

I know. It's a much bigger county than it used to be, and all you have to do is drive around and look at the billboards for personal injury lawyers to see that it's also more lawsuit-happy.

But are we really that much bigger? Do we really have that many more lawsuits?

Do we really need all those judges?

Here's the answer — not a totally convincing one — I got from the Florida Supreme Court, which each year makes a judicial staffing recommendation to the Legislature.

This recommendation is based on studies that show how much time judges typically spend on different types of cases, ranging from more than 2,000 minutes for capital murder down to seven for an eviction.

Multiply these minutes by the number of cases filed in a year, and you have a county's annual judicial workload. Divide this by the number of minutes each judge works and — ta-da! — you know how many of them you need.

Pretty simple and pretty solid, right?

Well, let's look at this year's recommendation for three new positions for the 5th Judicial Circuit, which includes Hernando. If the Legislature funds this request, one of those judges would go to Hernando, a representative of the circuit has told the county — the same representative, by the way, who said we need to provide this judge with a bunch of amenities, including a private restroom and kitchen.

Three years ago, the court's dockets swollen by foreclosure claims, there's no doubt the circuit was in need of new judges, if not their deluxe accommodations. Actually, according to the Supreme Court, the circuit needed 3.7 judges.

Last fiscal year, though, the need had dropped to 1.1 judges for the entire circuit.

So, why three new judges, including the one for our county?

The best the circuit's chief judge, Don F. Briggs, could do was tell me the circuit hasn't added a new judge in eight years, and this is a growing part of the state. Lisa Goodner, the Florida state courts administrator, referred me to the Supreme Court's recommendation. All I found there was a general discussion of judges picking up the slack for judicial staffers who have been eliminated in recent years.

In other words, nothing solid.

The bigger, 25-year picture?

It's a little hazy, partly because a few types of cases are classified differently and the records aren't as detailed.

But, otherwise, the pattern is probably what you'd expect. Not that many more criminal cases, not nearly enough, even, to keep up with the roughly 75 percent increase in the county's population.

But, apparently, we really do like to sue each other a lot more. In circuit court, where the most time-consuming suits are filed, there were a total of 7,555 civil cases filed last year in Hernando, or just about three times as many as 25 years ago.

What's the lesson from all of this? Obviously that the county, and the demands on its courts, has grown. Judges inevitably have gone from being one-of-a-kind powers presiding over either county or circuit court to part of a judicial team.

And as this team grows, as it surely will, the county must give them enough room to work and schedule hearings.

But the County Commission also needs to ask hard questions about caseloads. It needs to insist that judges share waiting rooms, conference rooms and hearing rooms and, yes, courtrooms. It has to make it clear to judges that they don't get their own private restrooms when they're part of a team.

Hernando commission needs to ask: Do we really need all these judges? 03/25/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 25, 2014 5:17pm]
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