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Judge Robert J. Morris: Sharp budget cuts put state justice system at risk

Fresh off the passage of legislation to avert furloughing court employees because of severe budget cuts, the judicial branch of government must once again focus on its very survival. The Legislature is in session in Tallahassee, determining the judiciary's budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Writing a state budget with an attitude that promotes the same across-the-board reductions for all areas of government ignores the fact that the judicial branch is constitutionally required and its existence must be coequal with the other two branches — not financially emaciated to the point of being inaccessible to the people.

The budget being circulated in Tallahassee would provide the courts with 10 percent less than we were given this year, when we survived by getting last-minute approval to spend some of the courts' trust fund money that had been set aside for other purposes. If this budget becomes a reality, it will be 16 percent less than last year's initial appropriation, which has been cut twice.

If these far-less-than-adequate funds are all that are appropriated, the effect on our local courts — the 6th Judicial Circuit — will be felt all over Pinellas and Pasco counties, not just by the approximately 60 employees who will have to be laid off and their families. For example:

• If Drug Court is eliminated, some citizens may face jail time, no longer having an opportunity to become drug-free, participating members of our society;

• People who go to traffic court at night so that they won't miss work will no longer have that forum to contest a traffic citation;

• Parents who utilize mediation to resolve family disputes so that their children do not become victims in a divorce will have the expense and wait of full civil litigation.

Other internal cutbacks because of the loss of staff will significantly slow down the processing of cases in all divisions. Because the courts are legally required to prioritize criminal matters, the remaining court assets will be focused there. Although the processing of criminal cases will slow down (while our jails fill up), everything else — especially civil cases — will crawl. Simply put, the courts will look much like they did in the 1970s, but the problems the courts are asked to address today are vastly different from 1970s Florida. Processing cases will take much longer because the expediters will be gone.

Underpaid employees

How did it come to this? Quietly, on July 1, 2004, almost unnoticed amendments to Article V of the Florida Constitution went into effect. This seminal event was the final step in the process that began in 1972 to create a statewide uniform judiciary. This last step shifted court funding from the counties to the state so that it would be uniform statewide. In the midst of severe budget cuts to the judicial branch, hindsight reveals how this event is being manipulated into the crippling of the judicial branch of government in Florida.

That judicial branch employees are substantially underpaid as compared to their counterparts in other branches of government has been well documented. For example, a September 2006 Florida TaxWatch report pointed out that 72.7 percent of court employees make 12.3 percent less than their counterparts in the executive branch. The average local court employee earns 36 percent less than the average Pinellas County employee. In fact, more than 60 percent of local court employees make less than $40,000 per year.

In the current economic crisis, legislators, in an effort to be fair, suggest that the judicial branch should take the same budget cut as state agencies. This position abdicates the exercise of sound discretion that the public has a right to demand from their elected officials. It also fails to account, not just for the relative financial health and public need for services of each entity, but for the fact that our Constitution mandates that there must be three coequal branches of government: the executive branch, the legislative branch and the judicial branch. Most state agencies are not legally required, but the judiciary is, and its existence must be coequal with the other two branches. Article I, Section 21 of the Florida Constitution requires that courts be open to the people so that justice can be administered without delay.

Cut after cut

The courts are vital to our system of government; without a place to determine rights and resolve disputes, our freedom and system of government is in jeopardy. The Legislature must adequately fund the courts so that the courts can carry out the constitutional mandate to be open to the people.

In the current fiscal year, the budget for the entire statewide judiciary from Key West to Pensacola — traffic courts to the Supreme Court and everything in between — represented seven tenths of 1 percent of the entire budget for the state of Florida. Roughly 90 percent of that judiciary budget is for salaries.

In the fall of 2007, approximately 2 percent of the previously approved budget was cut by the Legislature. In the fourth quarter of the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, the Legislature further reduced the courts' annual budget by 4 percent. This time, because the full force of this budget reduction was to be imposed in the last few months of the fiscal year, instead of being equally distributed over a whole year, the only way it could be absorbed was by furloughs of court employees without pay for substantial periods of time. Upon learning of the very real potential for unprecedented court closures, the Legislature then agreed to a plan to avert furloughs. The plan, however, did not eliminate the 4 percent budget reduction; it merely allowed the courts, for the most part, to use money that had been set aside in trust funds for other court purposes. The 4 percent reduction was still applied.

417,000 cases a year

So how does a 16 percent reduction of the court's budget play out in real terms? Because roughly 90 percent of the court's budget is salaries, any reduction must come from a reduction of the work force and the elimination of court programs. In the 6th Judicial Circuit (Pinellas/Pasco), the third largest in Florida, 69 judges and 69 judicial assistants serve a population of about 1.5-million people. They are distributed throughout the circuit, from Dade City in the north to St. Petersburg in the south. The approximately 190 other court employees distributed throughout the circuit include the trial courts administrator (chief operating officer) and her staff, the court technology officer and his staff, the court counsel and the attorneys she supervises, the human resources director and his staff, the financial manager and his staff, magistrates, general masters, hearing officers, case managers and secretaries. Collectively, this team handles in excess of 417,000 cases per year, ranging from first-degree murders, complex civil litigation, high-profile divorce proceedings, and contentious probate proceedings to speeding tickets and small claims matters and everything in between. A 16 percent budget reduction will mean the layoff of over 60 employees, as well as the probable loss of all court programs.

As the economy worsens, the courts will be busier than ever. Not surprisingly, economic crimes rise during recessions and, tragically, businesses as well as families fracture under the stress of these conditions. There is no question that these are hard times in Florida. We all need to pitch in and tighten our belts because there simply is not enough money to run the state in the appropriate manner. However, it is a bad strategy for the courts to be financially stripped of their ability to respond when the people need them the most. They should be given priority as a branch of government and because they exclusively perform a constitutionally mandated essential public service.

Robert J. Morris Jr. is chief judge of the 6th Judicial Circuit, which includes Pinellas and Pasco counties.

Judge Robert J. Morris: Sharp budget cuts put state justice system at risk 03/26/08 [Last modified: Friday, March 28, 2008 2:00pm]
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