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A Times Editorial

Judicial bonus proposal out of order

In the surreal world of the Florida Legislature, the problem with the state's overburdened, underfunded court system is not that lawmakers give the courts too little money. It's that those darned judges just don't work hard enough. No wonder the latest hare-brained idea calls for paying judges big bonuses based on how many cases they close. If they get paid like car salesmen, maybe they will be motivated to sell more cars — oops, move more court cases.

It's hard to take this seriously, except that it is a serious proposal advanced by Republican Sen. J.D. Alexander, the powerful Lake Wales Republican who chairs the Appropriations Committee. The fundamental problem with performance-based pay for judges is that judges are not selling cars. They are dispensing justice, and their independence and judgment must not be tainted by bonus pay.

The so-called Judicial Caseload Incentive Plan would set performance goals for reducing cases in the state's courts. Circuits that meet these targets each quarter would qualify for bonuses for every judge. In a draft of the plan, circuit judges could earn an additional $3,000 per quarter and county judges an extra $2,820, on top of their respective $142,178 and $134,280 annual salaries. The program requires an $11 million appropriation, even as state attorneys and public defenders are facing another year of budget cuts.

No doubt a $12,000-per-circuit-judge annual incentive program that rewards speed over legal accuracy, due process or full and fair consideration is going to move cases along. But at what cost? Maybe Alexander should also consider getting judges training in "How to skim pleadings in five minutes or less," and "Shortcut techniques on ruling without all the facts."

Bill Cervone, state attorney for the 8th Judicial Circuit and president of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, spoke out against this absurdity before a budget subcommittee. "I don't want any litigant to say that a motion to dismiss got granted because it's the last day of the quarter."

Ethical rules bar judges from having a pecuniary interest in cases that come before them. But under a judicial incentive system, every case potentially has money attached. And paying judges extra to move cases along raises due process and fundamental fairness concerns. Even if judges don't fall victim to a quota mentality, the perception will be there. And then there is the plan's all-or-nothing approach, where the circuit must meet the performance goals in each civil or criminal category or no judge would receive a bonus payment that quarter. Talk about peer pressure.

With so much criticism already , the measure may be narrowed this week to apply only to civil courts, which is where Alexander perceives the backlog. That won't make it any more palatable.

If Alexander has $11 million to make civil courts more efficient, he should fund some of the support staff positions cut in recent years. Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Chief Judge Thomas McGrady says the courts statewide have lost more than 250 support staff positions over the last three years. These are the people who allow judges to make the best use of their time.

Florida courts have a primary responsibility to dispense equal justice under the law. It sounds like fodder for standup comics, but telling judges that their new priority is "time is money" would be a serious mistake.

Judicial bonus proposal out of order 03/26/11 [Last modified: Saturday, March 26, 2011 4:31am]
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