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Playing with justice

Though issues such as school class size and prekindergarten and high-speed rail attract more publicity, another voter mandate has been waiting four years for Florida lawmakers to take action. This one is about justice and the courts, and it demands a sober reflection it has not yet received.

Will this state fairly and adequately finance its system of state courts?

The state courts handle some 2.8-million cases a year, yet their ability to be fair and thorough depends on a system of funding that varies throughout 20 judicial circuits and 67 counties.

These are the courts that bring people to justice, that put murderers in prison, take burglars out of the neighborhoods and get drug dealers off the street. They settle disputes between companies and between spouses. They find guardians for children or elderly people in need.

How is justice applied in your county? It may depend on whether it is rural with a tiny budget or urban with a wealthy property tax base. It may depend on whether the county has a history of supporting the justice system or is more interested in roads and development. It could come down to whether the chief judge plays golf with the county commission chairman.

The voters, in supporting Revision 7 in 1998, said they wanted to provide a uniform, statewide system of justice and do it by placing the mandate in the state Constitution and the price tag before the state Legislature. This makes good sense, and the cost is not as much as many voters might have imagined, but that hasn't stopped the Legislature from procrastinating.

Under the amendment, the state has until July 2004 to make the transition. To date, the Legislature has done little to respond.

During this year's session, lawmakers will be asked to begin the job by establishing in law a list of "essential elements" of the courts.

That should be easy, because there is virtually nothing the courts currently do that is frivolous. Some circuits have found ways to cut costs through mediation programs, and most have found ways to deal more efficiently and justly with drug offenders through a highly successful drug court program. All amount to a fair definition of "essential."

This step will leave the more difficult task until next year. That's when the Legislature will be required, under the Constitution, to pay for the state courts' operations.

The state already pays for judges and some other court costs. This amendment is expected to add roughly $190-million in state costs each year. That's a tiny fraction of the Florida's overall $54-billion budget, yet judges know all too well the politics of budget and taxation in Florida. That's why they are apprehensive. That's why Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Harry Lee Anstead said recently, "I have never seen a time when our state court system is more at risk."

If lawmakers play games with Revision 7, they'll be playing games with crime and justice.

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