Gov. Rick Scott is precipitating a crisis that will cause the courts to shut down for days in April and May if he does not agree to an emergency $28.5 million loan to cover a shortfall. The governor may not be fond of the courts, but it would be a mistake to force the courthouse doors to close.
While the governor initially agreed to a $14 million loan that kept the courts running through April, he has so far denied the rest of the money requested by Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady. If the governor's intransigence continues, the state courts have proposed a contingency plan: Trial courts would close for four days in April and another 10 days in May; district courts of appeal would close for five days in April and eight in May; and the Florida Supreme Court would shut down for five days in April and nine in May. The plan is subject to the approval of Canady, but there seems little alternative to these types of drastic steps, which would include statewide employee furloughs and the elimination of some key court personnel.
The state is in this fix because two years ago the Florida Legislature tied the court system's funding to filing fees that were put into a new trust fund. As much as 79 percent of the money flowing into that fund was from foreclosure filings that flooded the courts. But in the aftermath of the banks' robo-signing scandal, foreclosures were sharply reduced, leading to the current shortfall.
There is no evidence the funding problem is due to irresponsible spending or the courts exceeding their budgets. The Legislature goofed by tying the courts to an undependable source of money. This needs to be fixed going forward, but a stopgap is needed from the governor in the near term.
So far, all that's coming from the governor's office are vague claims about waiting for more information from the court system before implementing Scott's "plan" to get the courts through the end of the fiscal year that ends June 30. A spokesman defends the delay, saying the governor is protecting taxpayers by watching out for "financial mismanagement by the courts."
In fact, Scott is playing games with a co-equal branch of government. He claims to want to run things more efficiently, but then forces the state's chief judges to expend time and resources scrambling to address a funding shortfall. He wants to attract businesses to Florida, but no business is going to relocate to a state where contract disputes and other legal business legal may not be addressed in a timely manner. The governor needs to approve the loan and keep the courthouse doors open.