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Judge warns of court shutdowns, layoffs if governor doesn't deliver emergency funds

Courtrooms across the state could be dark for 14 days over the next two months — with no criminal cases going to trial, no divorces being settled, no child custody disputes resolving — unless Gov. Rick Scott approves a $28.5 million emergency loan by Friday.

Thomas McGrady, chief judge of the Sixth Circuit encompassing Pinellas and Pasco, held a news conference Tuesday to announce the dire measures being proposed statewide unless funding comes through.

In addition to closing the courts for nearly three workweeks — four days in April, 10 days in May — a statewide panel is recommending these cuts to Florida's chief justice:

• Eliminating all case managers and senior judges handling the backlog of mortgage foreclosure cases.

• Dismissing traffic court hearing officers, leaving those cases to be absorbed by other judges.

• Halting capital expenditures.

• Ceasing spending on services like language interpreters and case transcripts cease.

In the Sixth Circuit, that would mean pink slips for 18 employees.

"It's not about the courts," McGrady said. "It's about access to the courts."

Hillsborough Chief Judge Manuel Menendez Jr. said he was in Tallahassee this week and met with the chief justice, who he said felt confident the governor was going to approve a temporary transfer of funds. Unless that fails, and a Plan B to go to the Legislature fails, he won't talk in greater detail about the worst-case scenario.

"The thing about closing the doors and furloughing people and letting people go, that's part of a potential plan that has not been decided by anyone," Menendez said. "I'm not going that far at all because the chief justice is in the midst of discussions, negotiations with the Legislature. That decision has not been made. …

"We're looking to put a plan in place if need be, but I'm not going to tell you I'm closing the door on May 11 for 10 days," Menendez continued. "If and when that comes, we'll give as much notice as we possibly can. I, like the chief justice, am cautiously optimistic that we may have some additional services."

An official with the Fifth Judicial Circuit, which includes Hernando County, didn't have specifics, either, but said any cuts could be painful.

"You could expect big changes and big delays for sure," said spokeswoman Debbie C. Thomas. "We don't know if that means people losing positions or not."

About $435 million was budgeted for the court system statewide this year. McGrady said the court system swung from a $20 million budget surplus to a $70 million deficit in a matter of a few months because of a sharp dropoff in foreclosure filings. Those filing fees make up the great majority of the courts' operating budget.

"We're at basically about one-third of what they were just a few months ago," McGrady said.

By holding back on spending some of the money in the current budget — there's a hiring freeze in place now — and using dollars from two trust funds, the shortage stands at about $28.5 million.

That's what Scott is being asked to approve to get the courts across the state through to the new budget year beginning July 1. Twice the governor has asked for more information and twice the courts have provided it, McGrady said.

The governor is waiting on additional information, press secretary Lane Wright said Tuesday afternoon.

"They (governor's officials) have a plan to keep the courts funded through the end of the fiscal year," Wright said, although he did not provide any details of that plan.

McGrady emphasized that these measures are not meant to be a threat of a strike or work stoppage — if the money comes through.

"If you pay us, we'll be here," he said.

The possibility of furlough days in the courthouse could have a ripple effect on other services. Inmate populations in already overcrowded jails could swell further if bond hearings to let people out are delayed, for example.

The due-process principle comes into play too, such as with cases being appealed to higher courts. That process requires paper transcripts — a service for which there will be no money.

The worst-case scenario?

Defendants who exercise their constitutional right to a speedy trial but whose cases get delayed because of the slowdown in the system could potentially walk out of jail, McGrady said — though he added that's unlikely.

"It's difficult for the whole system," he said.

Next year's budget looks more stable because legislators have recognized the outcome of relying on filing fees, which have proved to be volatile. More money next year is projected to come from general revenue, McGrady said.

"I think we'll have more stability — kind of. It's hard to predict," he said.

Times staff writers Alexandra Zayas and John Woodrow Cox contributed to this report.

Judge warns of court shutdowns, layoffs if governor doesn't deliver emergency funds 04/05/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 5, 2011 11:08pm]
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