By Gary Blankenship
The Florida Supreme Court didn’t just ask for more judges in its annual certification opinion submitted to the state Legislature. Justices also “certified” the need to restore staff cuts caused by budget reductions over the past three years. Plus, justices said lawmakers should address the needs of state attorneys, public defenders, and related agencies.
The court released its annual certification opinion on February 25. It called for 53 more county judges and 37 more circuit judges, citing rising caseloads around the state. But the justices also said the court system desperately needs the restoration of the 10 percent of its budget that was cut over the past three years, leading to 290.5 job cuts among supporting staff.
“The budget reductions and loss of positions sustained by the State Courts System over the last two fiscal years continue to be felt in every judicial circuit,” Chief Justice Peggy Quince wrote for a unanimous court. “We cannot overstate the causal relationship between the loss of supplemental resources and the increases in case processing times. When judges must absorb the workload of case managers, staff attorneys, or hearing officers, case processing times inevitably worsen. The net result is court delay.”
Of the lost jobs, the opinion noted 249 were in trial courts. Overall the losses included 103.25 case managers; 23.75 magistrates and associated administrative staff; 38.5 law clerks; 18.5 due process positions, such as court reporters, court interpreters, and expert witnesses; and 106 court administration, appellate clerk, and appellate marshal positions. The courts also lost money to hire by contract civil traffic infraction hearing officers.
Quince spelled out the effect of the staff cuts, including on family law cases. The loss of case managers has slowed down the disposition of cases, particularly in matters involving custody, visitation, paternity, child support, dependency, delinquency, termination of parental rights, and domestic and repeat violence. Magistrates were also frequently assigned to handle family law cases.
The reductions have also harmed the courts’ ability to handle the skyrocketing number of foreclosures in Florida. Quince noted the number of foreclosures increased almost fivefold from the 2005-06 fiscal year through the 2007-08 fiscal year. At the same time, the clearance rate for foreclosure cases dropped from 94 to 42 percent. One study estimated that delays in processing foreclosures cost the state $17 billion a year.
In county courts, the loss of traffic court hearing officers means that county judges have to handle nearly an extra 500,000 civil traffic cases a year. That diverts them from other duties, including helping out in circuit courts, Quince wrote.
Overall, the opinion said that from 2006-07 to 2007-08, circuit court filings were up 21 percent, including 85 percent in civil filings. That was comprised of more than a doubling of foreclosure filings, and a 267 percent increase in product liability cases, 117 percent condominium, and 29 percent in contract and indebtedness cases.
Quince also reported that felony filings increased, including 5 percent for property crimes, 6 percent for capital murder, and 15 percent for robbery.
For county court, overall filings — not counting civil traffic cases — rose 5 percent, with overall civil filings rising by 14 percent. The latter includes a 16 percent hike in small claims cases, 20 percent in civil claims between $5,001 and $15,000, and 6 percent in evictions.
Because of cutbacks, Quince reported that the circuit court overall clearance rate declined 10 percent in 2007-08, with the only exception being the criminal division.
“The chief judges of the trial courts are ensuring that all due process (e.g., speedy trials) and other constitutional requirements related to felony proceedings are being met,” the chief justice wrote. “This often requires redeployment of judicial resources from other court divisions.”
Circuit civil divisions had a 19 percent decline in clearance rates, while county courts had an overall drop of 4 percent, including 5 percent in its civil divisions.
“The sustained impact of the mortgage foreclosure crisis is even further compromising the clearance rates in circuit civil divisions for all circuits in Florida,” the opinion said. “In many jurisdictions, circuit civil judges cannot keep pace with the volume. As a result, homeowners and lending institutions are subject to increasingly long delays for resolution of their cases.”
Here’s where the court said the 37 new circuit judges are needed:
• For the First and Fifth circuits, five new circuit judges each.
• For the Seventh, 19th, and 20th circuits, three new circuit judges each.
• For the Fourth, Sixth, Ninth, 10th, 14th, and 15th circuits, two new circuit judges each.
• For the Second, Eighth, 11th, 12th, 13th, and 18th circuits, one new circuit judge each.
Here’s where the court said the new 53 county court judges are needed:
• For Duval County, eight new county judges.
• For Miami-Dade and Broward counties, six new county judges each.
• For Palm Beach County, five new county judges.
• For Hillsborough County, three new county judges.
• For Pinellas, Volusia, Orange, Polk, and Lee counties, two new county judges each.
• For Okaloosa, Columbia, Citrus, Lake, Marion, Alachua, Osceola, Highlands, Manatee, Sarasota, Bay, Brevard, Seminole, St. Lucie, and Collier counties, one new county judge each.
The court did not seek any new judges for the five district courts of appeal, rejecting a request from the Second DCA for a new judge.
Aside from the requested new judges, the court said the Legislature needs to consider the needs of state attorneys, public defenders, capital collateral regional counsels, and the criminal conflict and civil regional counsels.
“The need persists to reconcile the certification of new judgeships with sufficient staffing for these entities,” Quince wrote. “This is a systemic issue and should be approached as such. We encourage the Legislature to consider the needs of the [four agencies] . . . if new judgeships are authorized for our criminal divisions, particularly in light of the staffing reductions they have experienced in recent years.”
She concluded the opinion by noting, “Florida’s court system remains under duress. The state and national recession of the last two years and the resulting budget reductions for the courts are taking a sustained toll on Florida’s judges, court staff, and most importantly those who are accessing our courts. Case filings are up and clearance rates are down. Judicial dockets are full, scheduling is problematic, and case processing times are delayed.”
The court acted in In Re: Certification of Need for Additional Judges, case no. SC 10-320.