By Mark D. Killian
Florida’s courts need a sufficient and stable funding source in order to serve the public and meet its constitutional obligations, according to Chief Justice Peggy Quince.
Addressing those attending The Florida Bar’s “Funding Justice” summit in Miami January 16, Chief Justice Quince said the judicial branch is particularly vulnerable to economic instability in that 87 percent if its budget is devoted to salaries and more than half of those salary dollars — 53 percent — must be used to pay judges. Consequently, budget reductions disproportionately erode the staff support necessary for courts.
Quince said new budgeting practices — including the redirection of filing fees to the courts — must be adopted to better stabilize court operations.
“This is not going to be an overnight fix,” Quince said. “We are looking at how we can address things for the long haul.”
To do that, Quince said, the courts have outlined seven principles for stabilizing court funding:
1) The elements of the state courts system, codified in §29.001, should be adequately funded by the state to ensure the guarantee of court access by Florida’s citizens.
Quince said adequate and equitable funding has been compromised by the recent budget reductions that over the past two years has seen the judicial budget reduced by $44 million and the elimination of 282 positions.
When funds are unavailable for staff that provide adjudication and administrative support, their tasks are left for judges to handle and the cost associated with using judges to cover this work load is significantly higher than the expense of non-judge resources, she said.
2) Court fees assessed and paid by Florida’s citizens to access their court system should be dedicated to the court system.
Quince said only small portions of filing fee revenue are currently dedicated to the courts. The rest — from fees, fines, and costs that are not being held by the clerks to fund their offices — go into Florida’s general revenue fund.
3) Unless adequate safeguards are in place, court-related revenue other than filing fee revenue (revenue derived from fines, service charges, and costs) should not be dedicated to court funding but used to support other justice system partners.
Quince noted one of the reforms brought about by the 1972 amendment to Article V was the elimination of the courts’ reliance on fines for funding. A return to such cash register justice would be a step backward, she said. Filing fees are a more appropriate source of revenue for the courts, because they are more directly related to court work load and activity.
4) All current court-related revenue being collected should be reevaluated to determine what portion of current filing fee revenue should be dedicated to court funding.
In addition to the filing fee revenue being directed into the state’s general revenue fund, a substantial portion is being held by clerks to pay for the court record-keeping functions. Pursuant to Article V, §14(b), the clerks are funded through filing fees, fines, service charges, and court costs. However, the clerks’ budgets are not appropriated by the Legislature, but are instead overseen by the Florida Clerk of Court Operations Corporation that reviews and certifies clerks’ budgets as prescribed by law. All trial court clerks are members of the corporation. For those clerks who project the revenue within their county will be insufficient to fund their court-related activities, the statutory process provides for the shortfall to be funded from revenue “surpluses” from other counties. Further, the maximum budget amounts authorized for the clerks’ court-related activities are a function of the total amount of revenue anticipated in a given fiscal year.
5) Additional or increased filing fees should be considered, but only after an adequate review of the distribution of the current filing fee revenue has been made.
According to the Office of the State Courts Administrator, if such additional fees are considered, studies from other states indicate that the following sorts of fees are fairly common:
• An increased filing fee to reopen cases for dissolution and child support.
• A filing fee for all repeat violence cases, as very few of the cases currently being filed are legitimate claims of repeat violence.
• A new filing fee for selected motions that involve significant judicial work load in the civil and probate divisions.
• A sliding scale fee for probate and guardianship cases based on case value.
• New fees in the appellate courts for pre-opinion and post-opinion motions, a new fee for amicus curiae briefs, a fee increase for cross appeal/joinder/intervenor filings, and a new service charge for file review.
• A reschedule fee in civil cases when hearings are cancelled without reasonable notice.
“These are just ideas we have looked at, and we are not actually proposing these because we think that the first step absolutely has to be a reevaluation of what is already here,” Chief Justice Quince said.
6) Some components of the state courts are more appropriately funded from the general revenue fund and should remain so.
In particular, judges’ salaries should remain as a general obligation, while the operating and staff resources needed to keep the courts functioning can be paid from trust funds.
7) State Court Trust Funds are the appropriate depositories for court filing fees.
“We believe these principles will focus the court system and others on how we can be adequately funded,” Quince said.