Arobust legal system is at the core of American democracy. The Bill of Rights guarantees a citizen's right to redress and a speedy trial. The judicial branch is the check and balance on the legislative and executive branches. But in Florida, those fundamental roles are in jeopardy due to soaring caseloads and shrinking budgets. Citizens pay more than ever to file a civil case and wait longer. Suspects linger longer in jail, costing county taxpayers. As the Florida Legislature looks to balance next year's budget, state courts can't take another significant hit. In fact, the time has come for lawmakers to protect the courts with a dedicated funding source.
Legislators cut court spending 11 percent in the past two years while the souring economy helped pump 12 percent more cases into the system. Real estate filings in state courts have risen 365 percent in the past two years; small claims cases are up 40 percent; robbery cases are up 47 percent. Meanwhile, the courts have cut 280 jobs to cope with a budget that shrank $58 million, to $433 million.
The result is rapidly growing caseloads. For example, about 14 percent more cases were filed in Pinellas County trial courts in 2006 than were closed. Two years later, that gap rose to 65 percent — even though the courts closed an additional 3,800 cases in 2008. The story is similar statewide. A study commissioned by the Florida Bar Association estimated that just the delays in the civil docket are costing the state economy at least $10.4 billion annually because litigation is tying up businesses' and individuals' interests.
Lawmakers are sympathetic. In January's special session to cut the state budget, the courts were trimmed 1.25 percent, compared to the average 4 percent for agencies. And Gov. Charlie Crist is pushing to largely hold the courts harmless again next year. But his method for doing so — once again raising fees for civil cases as the Legislature did last year — is misguided. Florida's court fees are the second highest in the nation, behind California. Just last year, the filing fee for evicting a tenant went from $75 to $250; the fee for asking a court to consider someone an indigent went from $40 to $50. With each price increase, fewer Floridians will have access to the courts — a fundamental American right.
The irony is that Florida courts already generate far more money than they spend. They just don't get to keep much of it. Instead, they compete with other state agencies for their slice of the budget pie. That's not right for the third branch of government. The Legislature should dedicate a portion of all court fees to court operations, moving the system's funding a step from the political machinations of each budget cycle. Such a system already exists for the court clerks. The Legislature needs to consider a similar plan for the courts.