By Jan Pudlow
At the first meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee on December 4, Sen. Jack Latvala was the first to utter the f-word: foreclosures.
State Courts Administrator Lisa Goodner had just finished a brief overview of the judicial branch’s legislative goals, but she had not delved into foreclosures, a challenging burden for the courts to deal with a huge backlog while more cases are filed.
“How about bringing us up to date system-wide on where we are with foreclosures,” said Latvala, a Republican from Clearwater who is CEO of GCI Printing Services.
“If you’ll recall, Sen. Latvala, we received a special $4 million appropriation for this fiscal year to once again set up special dockets with senior judges and case managers so that we could have an ability to expedite those cases,” Goodner began.
“We started this fiscal year with about 377,000 pending foreclosure cases. We are still trying to kind of get over the hump where we are disposing of more cases than we are taking in. But foreclosure cases are building back up again.”
“So we start the year with 377,000. Where would we be now?” Latvala asked.
“We are still at about that number, Senator, unfortunate to say,” Goodner answered.
“But with the number of new cases that are coming in the system currently, we don’t have enough horsepower to move the cases as quickly as we’d like to.”
Last month, she said, the trial courts “turned the corner where we are able to move the cases more quickly than they are coming in the door. There are still problems we are experiencing with a lot of requests for continuances. There are a number of cases the judges will refer to as ‘stale.’ They’ve been in the system for 24 to 36 months. A lot of the work in the circuits is to target those old cases and try to get them moved through the system.
“We’ve also been advised that a small amount of money is going to be made available for the courts from the national mortgage settlement fund. That money will all be used to expedite cases in the system.” (See story on page 1)
Sen. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, vice chair of the committee, said: “In my law practice, I am at the courthouse several times a week. And I recognize how much the court system can affect each of our daily lives. That is something I will be considering every day in our deliberations here.
“And I know we deal with some of the biggest issues. . . foreclosures being one of the biggest, I think, we need to tackle this year,” Soto said.
“We are dealing with being still the top in the nation on foreclosures. I am hopeful that everyone on this committee will take time to possibly get a little more aggressive, both budgetary-wise and policy-wise, to see this through so that our economy can improve.”
Committee Chair Tom Lee, R-Tampa, a former Senate president in 2004-06 who is vice president of Sabal Homes of Florida and sells real estate, told members he had never before chaired or sat on the Judiciary Committee.
“So I’ve got a steep learning curve, and I’m looking forward to that,” Lee said. “When I sat down with the Senate president to talk about this assignment, he told me that he tends to see a constitutional issue and a legal question or a judicial issue in most issues. So we may be seeing a lot of legislation.”
But, Lee said, he does not anticipate any proposed legislation to dramatically change the judicial branch — such as splitting the Supreme Court into civil and criminal divisions and adding two justices — as has been attempted in previous sessions.
“I certainly don’t have an agenda to do anything aggressive with respect to the court system, except trying to help make it more efficient,” Lee told Sunshine State News.
After listening to the courts’ goals and budget requests that focus on raises for court employees and repairing leaky roofs, Lee told The Florida Bar News: “This entire government has been strained by the recession and the challenges we face. And everyone has to tighten their belts. Everywhere we look in government, everyone I talk to — from health and human services to public education — they have facilities issues and service-delivery issues because of the absence of funding.
“Hopefully, now the economy is stabilizing, we can get back into a posture where we can start dealing with some of those deferred maintenance issues. We’ll just have to see what kind of resources we have.”
Asked whether the courts should be given more consideration as a co-equal branch of government, as opposed to another state agency, Lee answered: “No, I don’t. Absolutely not. I think the courts have a great story to tell, and I think they impact a lot of our constituents back home. I think they are a co-equal branch of government. I think we have to treat them that way. But the funding, they’ve got to figure out how to do more with less when times are tough, also.”
When Goodner outlined the court system’s top legislative priorities, she listed the $474 million budget request — $30 million more than last year’s approved budget — that focuses primarily on personnel and property. State court employees have not had a raise in six years and the courts are asking for 3.5 percent “competitive salary adjustment” for all employees. Deferred maintenance on appellate court buildings — including the Supreme Court’s leaky original 1948 roof — can’t wait any longer.
Another key issue, Goodner told the senators, is automating the court records.
“Over the last several years, we’ve had a lot of discussion about e-filing, and the court system has been working very closely with the clerks of court on the e-filing initiative,” Goodner said.
But the e-filing initiative, she stressed, only brings the filings in the front door of the courthouse — not getting electronic records to judges so they can work from them on the bench.
“In most counties in the state, the clerks are still printing paper for judges.” Goodner said. “That’s a big concern for us, and it’s a very high priority of Chief Justice Polston that we find a way to get back-end systems into the courtrooms that would allow judges to work with records electronically. The real promise of efficiency in the court system for judges, clerks, for the litigants, will not really come until we get a fully automated process in the courts, so that judges can dispose of cases using electronic case files.”
Fred Baggett, general counsel for the Florida Clerks & Comptrollers, called e-filing a “massive undertaking” that’s “taken a lot of cooperation.”
The clerks’ main goal, he said, is “stabilizing the adequate funding of the clerks’ offices as required by the constitution.
“Last year, the Legislature, I think, with our strong support, assisted the courts by taking them out of the trust fund business and putting them in the GR [general revenue] business,” Baggett said.
“Clerks are still in the trust fund business in a budget process that I hope that those of you who have worked with us understand: It is just not sustainable.”