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Court expansion worries state's lawyers

Prosecutors and public defenders are worried that when Hillsborough County's courts get three new judges in January, there won't be enough state-paid lawyers to do battle in front of them. The new judges will prompt the creation of three new court divisions. But prosecutors and public defenders say they don't have enough lawyers to staff the new divisions. And with state budget cuts, they can't afford to hire new personnel.

"We have new judges, but no money to put assistants in there," said prosecutor Hank Lavandera, who heads the state attorney's misdemeanor and juvenile prosecutors. "If new divisions are created, we'll be stretched to fill those."

The new divisions will include a felony-criminal section, a juvenile division and a civil section in Plant City.

"The caseload was getting heavier and heavier," said Chief Judge F. Dennis Alvarez, who said judges each handle about 2,300 cases annually. The new divisions "will help ease the overload," he said.

Six prosecutors and eight public defenders currently are assigned to each of the six felony-criminal divisions.

"We think we have the number of people per division we need," Lavandera said. To transfer staff from existing sections "would stretch our resources," he said.

"We're handling two and three times as many cases as we should," said Wayne Chalu, chief of staff for the public defender's office. "We're going to try our best to man them."

Judge Alvarez said the transition shouldn't be difficult. Since the additional divisions are expected to lower caseloads in the existing sections, fewer lawyers should be needed there, he said.

"It's just a matter of reassigning people," Alvarez said. "I think everybody is aware of the budget cuts. But sometimes you've just got to bite the bullet."

The new felony-criminal division will be headed by Judge Barbara Fleischer, formerly a county judge. Alvarez doesn't plan to decide who will head the new juvenile or civil divisions until after the Nov. 6 election.

He also has decided the placement of some sitting judges. Judge Robert H. Bonanno, now presiding in one of the felony-criminal sections, will be transferred to a civil division, Alvarez said. Judge-elect Bob Mitcham will take his place in January.

Family law Judge Susan Sexton will move to felony-criminal to replace Judge Susan Bucklew. Bucklew will head the trial division vacated by retiring Judge John P. Griffin.