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Guest column | Karen Nicolai

Florida judges' bid for clerks' duties is power grab

A misguided effort by a few judges in Florida to take over the duties of your elected clerk of circuit court has been presented to the Legislature.

Like many aspects of our democratic government, the role of Florida's clerks was carefully established in our state Constitution to protect the interests of the public. And, like all our cherished rights and protections, if we aren't careful to preserve the public interest, we may lose ground to other political interests.

As a certified public accountant, I understand the checks and balance system that should stay in place to preserve the integrity of the system. As Baron Acton said in 1887 "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

If passed, this legislation would transfer such duties as the collection of fines and costs and the duty to preserve case files and court records to the judges. The state Legislature, not the clerk, establishes the amount and distribution of the fines and costs currently collected by the clerk, and allows the judges the discretion to assess additional amounts. If responsibilities are transferred, the money collected would be the source of the judges' own funding.

How can we expect the court system to remain impartial if it funds itself with the fines and costs that it assesses and collects? The appearance will be that of a court system out to make money. The perception will be reality and we will have so-called cash register justice.

Judges preside over cases and courtrooms. Their actions in cases are documented in court files, through which they are held accountable to the public. The preservation of case files and court records should be handled by an impartial, independent custodian who answers to the citizens of Florida, not by an employee of the judges.

While most members of the public may not interact with the clerk's office every day, clerks serve as the public's most direct point of entry and access to the courts and to their own public records. That is why it is essential for the public and the Legislature to guard against the organized effort under way by some Florida judges to move vital duties of the clerk, particularly relating to court record preservation and collection of fines, to court administrators who are appointed by and report to the judges themselves.

In summary, the office of the clerk was established in the Florida Constitution to maintain a system of checks and balances within the judicial branch and within county government. As your elected clerk of circuit court for more than 20 years, I believe it is essential that the fundamental responsibilities of the clerk, which are protective of the public, remain within the scope of independently elected constitutional officers.

Please see our Web site for further information on how you can help.

Karen Nicolai is Hernando County's clerk of circuit court.

Florida judges' bid for clerks' duties is power grab 03/16/09 [Last modified: Monday, March 16, 2009 5:48pm]
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