By Gary Blankenship
A sharp drop in foreclosure filings has resulted in a steep decline in money available to fund Florida’s court system, although it’s not certain if that reduction in filings is only temporary, a state Senate committee has been told.
One senator on the panel said the Legislature and others should look at ways of speeding up civil cases as an alternative to spending more on the courts.
The Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee held its initial meeting of the 2010-12 biennium on December 7 by having a general overview of the entities under its jurisdiction, including the Department of Corrections, the Department of Juvenile Justice, the Attorney General, the court system, state attorneys, public defenders, guardians ad litem, and other court-related agencies.
Committee staffer Claude Hendon briefed the panel on court funding and noted in recent years the Legislature has replaced general revenue funds for the court with monies raised by court fees, particularly filing fees on foreclosure cases,which can be as high as $1,900 per case.
A few years ago, most court funding came from general revenues, but for the current budget year 90 percent is coming from filing fees and other sources, and only 10 percent from general revenues. Most, Hendon said, is from foreclosure filing fees.
“Unfortunately, foreclosure cases are dropping and that’s creating some pressure on their budgets,” Hendon said.
Before the meeting, State Courts Administrator Lisa Goodner said the declining foreclosure filings were likely due to moratoriums by several major banks and mortgage servicing companies following stories of widespread problems with foreclosure paperwork, including forged documents, bad notary signatures, and other issues. If those difficulties are resolved, it’s expected foreclosure filings will increase, she said.
The speedy trial issue was raised by Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton. He noted his involvement in a case in his home circuit that dragged on three years before it went before a judge. Another case in Colorado where he’s a party has gone on for seven years without going to trial, Bennett said.
“In criminal courts, they have the speedy trial rule. In civil courts, they do everything they can to avoid a speedy trial,” he said.
“The attorneys for both sides will continue to ask for delays until one of them runs out of money. I think we should see what we could do to have speedy civil trials.”
Committee Chair Sen Mike Fasano joked to Bennett, “One of the things we could do is stop paying attorneys by the hour.”
Bennett said the committee can tell those who are seeking more money for the courts that “it’s going to be very difficult for us to fund these sorts of things if they’re not going to do something.”
One statistic presented to the committee showed the difficult time courts have had with funding in the past decade, even when budgets weren’t tight.
A chart shown to senators detailed that for every year in the past 10, the Supreme Court has certified the need for new judges. But in only four of those years were any new judges approved, and during no year did the court system get all the requested judges. And no new judges have been approved for the past three years, even as economic hard times increased the burdens on the courts.
The best the court system did was in 2005, when the court certified the need for 110 new judges and 59 were approved, and 2006 when the court certified the need for 66 judges and 55 were approved. The courts received 27 new judges in 2001 (out of 44 certified) and 18 in 2002 (out of 49 certified).