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Proposed legislation sparks turf war between clerks, judges

A contentious turf battle is brewing between the state's 67 clerk of circuit court offices and the judiciary, thanks to a legislative proposal that would allow the courts to wrest control of duties performed for decades by elected clerks.

If the clerks' reactions so far are any indication, there could be a spicy showdown this session.

"It's a power and money grab by the judiciary," said Pinellas Clerk Ken Burke.

"A serious — and dangerous — mistake to our system of government," wrote Hillsborough Clerk Pat Frank.

"It goes back to the arrogance of judges for deciding to go for everything," said Hernando Clerk Karen Nicolai.

Judges, for their part, say the effort is merely an attempt to bring more accountability and equality to the budget process, one they argue has stripped them to the point of slowing justice in recent years.

They say $80 million to $100 million could be saved statewide by transferring court-related functions to the state's 20 court administrators, eliminating the duplication of jobs and operational costs in multicounty judicial circuits.

"We have absolutely no idea how anyone can make such a statement," Frank said, adding she would have to cut half her staff or half their salaries to get anywhere close to the suggested savings.

Both sides are armed with pie charts, bar charts, statistics and point-counterpoint comparisons. Memos are flying. Legislators are being heavily lobbied by the two politically influential groups.

Typically, these two government entities get along. Though Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Peggy Quince and all 20 circuit court chief judges unanimously support the bill, many judges make a point to express their high regard for individual clerks.

The push reflects a deeper issue — the sheer desperation and frustration many judges feel about budget cuts that have forced them into such measures as laying off all their child custody investigators in Pinellas and Pasco counties.

Judges contend that clerks' budgets have grown 33 percent in the past five years while the state courts system has grown only 13 percent. They say clerks have enlarged staffs as courts have been forced to cut.

If clerks' offices had been more in line with the rest of state government, the judges say, the Legislature would have had $83 million more at its disposal to address other funding shortages.

The judges explain their position in measured tones. They say it's business, not personal.

"We're all professionals, and I think we all genuinely like each other," said Pinellas-Pasco Chief Judge Robert Morris.

But given that the judges are essentially seeking the right to gut someone else's job, it's no surprise the proposal stings.

The elected clerks are trying to combat what some believe is intentionally misleading information being touted by the judges. An example: Clerks say their budget actually grew only 14 percent, and some of those costs came from adding staff members to support the new judgeships created since 2004.

At the federal and state appellate levels, clerks' duties do fall under the judicial branch. But Burke, the Pinellas clerk, said the public is better served by independent clerks because they are local, elected officials who have to stay in close touch with their constituents. He said they move quicker and are more responsive than court administrators, who are appointed by each circuit's chief judge.

Judges are elected, too, but Burke suggested a simple test: try getting your county clerk on the phone and then try to reach a judge.

"Judges, while they have a very hard job, are not generally good administrators," said Nicolai, the clerk in Hernando. "You just don't put doctors in charge of hospitals."

Sister bills sponsored by Sen. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, and Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, would transfer to court administrators duties such as maintaining public records, court files and evidence, collecting fines and fees, calling and paying jurors, processing appeals and domestic violence complaints and assigning cases to judges. Many clerks also serve as comptrollers for their county governments, and these duties would not be affected.

Bogdanoff said she has been pushing the issue for four years, even before the judges got behind it. She believes "there's a lack of oversight and transparency" with the current system, and inefficiencies. What sense does it make, she asks, for 67 clerks to operate 67 different computer systems, when a single statewide system would be easier and cheaper?

Clerks say an important checks-and-balances system would be lost if the same part of government that assesses fees and hears cases also collects the fees and manages the case files.

One of the intriguing side arguments in this legal system battle is whether the idea is, well, legal. Burke of Pinellas points out that the Florida Constitution specifically refers to "clerks of circuit court," implying that they should be assisting courts.

"I was surprised that the courts would try to basically subvert the Constitution, because that's what they're doing," Burke said. But Morris said, "their court functions are not constitutionally mandated."

Times staff writers Ernest Hooper and Molly Moorhead contributed to this report. Colleen Jenkins can be reached at cjenkins@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3337. Curtis Krueger can be reached at ckrueger@sptimes.com and (727) 893-8232.

Proposed legislation sparks turf war between clerks, judges 02/27/09 [Last modified: Friday, February 27, 2009 9:59pm]
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