TAMPA — With no new judgeships in three years and fewer resources, Florida courts are struggling to keep up with increased demand on the system, the state Supreme Court said Thursday.
Case filings are up. Clearance rates are down. People are waiting longer to get their cases heard.
"Justice in many instances is delayed," Chief Justice Peggy A. Quince wrote.
The state's highest court is asking legislators to fund additional judicial positions — 37 in circuit court and 53 in county court — to help ease the burden.
Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, said he recognizes the need and wants to ensure access to the courts. But with the state facing a $3.2 billion budget shortfall, the judicial branch's chances for relief don't look great.
"Right now, we're just trying to figure out how do we keep the doors open with the expenses we have," said Crist, who heads the criminal and civil justice appropriations committee. "I don't know how we would be able to handle that at this time."
Chief judges for the Hillsborough and Pinellas-Pasco judicial circuits said they remained hopeful.
Thursday's request calls for one new circuit judge and three more county judges for Hillsborough County. The Pinellas-Pasco circuit needs two additional circuit judges, and Pinellas should get two county judges, justices said.
"Two more will allow us to keep our head above the water," said Pinellas-Pasco Chief Judge Thomas McGrady. "Right now, we're treading the best we can."
Five circuit court judges were requested for the five-county circuit that includes Citrus and Hernando. Citrus also needs another county court judgeship, according to the formula used by the Supreme Court.
Justices said court operations have suffered as budget reductions cut 290 support staff positions statewide. Judges have absorbed some of the workload of case managers, staff attorneys and hearing officers, resulting in delays as circuit court filings increased by 21 percent between fiscal 2006-07 and 2007-08.
Citizens "are being forced to wait inordinate periods of time for final resolution of their cases while judges find it more and more difficult to advance their dockets and clear out backlogged matters," Quince said.
If legislators can't provide new judgeships, the Supreme Court asked them to seriously consider restoring the support staff positions.
Colleen Jenkins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3337.