By Gary Blankenship
State Sen. Durell Peaden, R-Crestview, had a question for Florida Bar President Jay White.
Given that fees, costs, and fines collected through the court system can be used to both fund the courts and the court clerks, to which would he give priority?
“I think you’re asking me to pick one or the other, but I think there’s enough money to be shared between both of those,” White said.
White’s reply came during a February 4 appearance at the Senate Judiciary Committee to talk about The Florida Bar, its operations, and its priorities for the upcoming Regular Session of the Legislature.
Peaden followed up on his his question: “Do you think we should augment court administration or we ought to keep things like they have been for the last 150 years or so and fund the clerks, give them priority?”
“We are working on those solutions and looking at that issue, and I certainly think that some of the ways the clerks have been operating could be changed,” White replied.
Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, followed up by noting that while the courts get only 0.7 percent of the state’s budget, clerks — who do not get anything from the state — get considerable funds used to support court operations.
“The dollars that are coming through the court system are funding the clerks’ offices to provide the manpower and administration and quite a bit of what goes on in the courthouses and the courts,” Fasano said.
“Yes, sir, absolutely,” White replied.
The questions reflect, apparently, a recent focus by court officials on fees, fines, and costs collected by clerks and which fund the clerks’ offices, with most of the surplus going into the state’s general revenues. Court officials see those monies as perhaps a source of dedicated funding for court operations and a way to help shield it from economic vicissitudes.
That was the only serious questioning White received in a friendly reception before the committee. He did tell the committee the Bar’s top priority for the upcoming session will be improving funding for the third branch.
“The top issue facing Florida’s legal profession today is funding for our state courts and the justice system,” White said.
“Our courts are seeing enormous increases in filing, both in criminal cases, civil cases for contract, indebtedness, real property cases and a really, really large increase in foreclosures which have increased about 400 percent in the last few years,” White said. “On top of this, when all the work and filing were coming into the court system, our court budget was reduced $44 million over the past two years, which required our court system to lay off about 280 positions.”
Delays and backlogs in court cases cost the state about $17 billion annually, plus about 120,000 jobs, he said, according to a report prepared for the Bar by The Washington Economics Group.
“If our justice system continues to decline and continues to get backlogged, all of the citizens of the state of Florida will suffer,” White testified.
The president began his presentation with an overview of the Bar, noting that under the Florida Constitution it is an arm of the Supreme Court charged with regulating the legal profession. The Bar recently passed the 86,000-member mark, making it the second largest state bar in the country.
“The oversight of our members we take very seriously,” White said. “There is clearly a move by the Supreme Court, and I take this very seriously, to increase the professionalism of our membership.”
What many people don’t know about the Bar, he said, is the involvement of nonlawyers in its operations. There are two non- lawyer members on the Board of Governors, nonlawyer members on local grievance and unlicensed practice of law committees, and nonlawyer members on the Statewide Committee on UPL. Plus, the Bar established the Citizens Forum as an advisory body.
“I call it our public conscience,” White said. “They give us great advice.”
The Bar also operates openly, he said, adding, “The Bar’s budget, its administrative processes, and most of its records are completely open and freely accessible, consistent with our state’s heritage of sunshine — and as our constitution requires.”
That includes, White said, having the most open discipline system of any profession in the state.
Because lawyers in Florida must belong to the Bar, it has a limited lobbying purview, he said, focusing on the regulation and discipline of attorneys, improvement to the court system and judicial efficiency, and increasing the availability of legal services to society.
But the Bar also has voluntary sections and divisions, and because members choose to belong to those, the sections and divisions have a broader lobbying latitude, White said. But they do not, he noted, speak for the Bar as a whole.
Individual lawyers and voluntary bar associations are also free to do any legislative lobbying they please. White said some people wrongfully assume that any lawyer or legal organization advocating at the Legislature represents the Bar.
“If you have a problem, knowing who’s who, or where The Florida Bar stands, please let me know and I will set you straight,” White told the panel.
He also said the Bar can be a resource for lawmakers.
“The Florida Bar can also be a helpful, nonpartisan resource to you in any matter of interest or concern to the legislative branch,” the president said.
“I urge you to avail yourselves of the many talented and knowledgeable legal minds within our ranks, for technical assistance or other aid in your various legislative activities.”