by Gwynne A. Young
Proper perspective is in order.
Imagine a pie chart of the state of Florida’s $69,896,485,549 budget. You practically need to squint and use a magnifying glass to see the judicial branch’s tiny sliver — 0.6 percent —yes, just six-tenths of one percent.
Yet, the mission of the judiciary is huge. It is a vital, third co-equal branch of government that must administer justice in civil and criminal courts fairly, effectively, and efficiently, at the trial and appellate levels.
That’s why The Florida Bar continues to make adequate court funding its top priority.
This year’s State Court System’s $474 million budget request for FY 2013-14 is only about $30 million more than last year’s approved budget.
How does the court system want to spend that additional $30 million?
Rather than requesting substantial new resources, the emphasis is to “invest in the investment” the legislature has already made in the judicial branch.
This is the year to protect investments statewide at the trial and appellate levels — whether they are brick-and-mortar court buildings or flesh-and-blood employees.
Court employees have not had a raise since 2006, despite having to do more with less after 235 positions were eliminated. What’s new this year is asking for a 3.5 percent competitive salary adjustment for all employees of the state courts system so that the judiciary can attract, hire, and retain highly qualified and competent employees.
“We have been asking our people to do more and more with less and less. And we are at the critical stage where if we don’t invest in our personnel resources, we are going to continue to lose them. And that will have an adverse impact on the ability of the trial courts to keep cases moving to serve the people,” said 20th Circuit Judge Margaret Steinbeck, chair of the Trial Court Budget Commission.
She is quick to say she doesn’t want to sound ungrateful, and was relieved the legislature did not cut the courts’ budget last year. There’s no question the court stabilization funding plan hammered out a year ago — to make sure the court budget is no longer dependent on volatile court filing fees — is working.
While the plan is working, it’s not enough to protect the courts’ investments in its people. Court personnel have been expected to do more with less without a raise year after year after year after year after year after year. Yes, six long years and counting.
“We are losing some of our best and brightest to other government agencies,” Judge Steinbeck said. “There is only so much loyalty and dedication that can carry you through. When you are facing the needs of your family, you face a tough decision: ‘Am I going to choose working for the state courts, over my son’s or daughter’s needs?’”
Just at the Office of the State Courts Administrator, over the past three years, 16 employees — nearly 10 percent of the OSCA workforce — have moved to jobs in the executive branch, where they can earn an average of $6,800 more per year.
“This loss of key managers and other high performers, who had developed broad knowledge bases of critical judicial branch operations, has brought significant organizational challenges in already difficult times,” according to the State Court System’s budget request, filed with the legislature and Gov. Rick Scott.
We must do a better job of protecting our investment in our court employees, who are well-trained, ready, and willing to work for the judicial branch — if only they could afford to remain.
Trial courts have been hard hit by the pay gap. For example, base pay for federal court reporters in Miami is $77,641, compared to $47,569 for court reporters in the state system. Interpreters have a starting pay of $41,268 in state courts. They may begin in the federal courts at $71,384, however.
Rather than asking for a significant increase in new positions, this year’s budget request aims to take care of existing court employees, adding only eight new FTEs (full-time equivalents) to the current 4,322.5 FTEs.
Just as the budget must address the needs of court personnel, it must also address the maintenance needs of the court system’s buildings. Deferred maintenance on the court system’s buildings and facilities cannot wait any longer.
Whenever it rains, imagine having to pull out pots and pans to catch the drops that fall through your leaky roof and splash on your floor. If that were your house, you would want to call a roofer to repair the leaks right away, before the damage becomes worse.
Well, that’s exactly what is happening at the Florida Supreme Court building in Tallahassee. Containers must be moved around to catch the rain falling through the leaky original 1948 roof.
This budget request includes a number of appeals for necessary repairs and maintenance issues at many court facilities.
I stress the word “necessary.” None of this is pie-in-the-sky, wish-list dreaming. It is merely asking for a minimum amount to cover the basic necessities to maintain the third co-equal branch of government.
Other noteworthy items in the new budget request include:
• $4 million to continue the courts’ efforts to reduce the backlog of mortgage foreclosure cases, now at 379,577 cases statewide.
(Totally separate from this budget request is a promise that $5 million be awarded to the courts for foreclosures, part of $300 million in foreclosure settlement money recovered for Floridians in a national mortgage settlement with Wells Fargo, JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup, and Ally Financial, after allegations surfaced that fraudulent documents were used to foreclose on homeowners. At the next meeting of the Legislative Budget Commission this month, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Senate President Don Gaetz, and House Speaker Will Weatherford will seek approval for budget amendments to disburse $60 million of those settlement funds sitting in escrow since April. Some of that money should go directly to The Florida Bar Foundation, which has the infrastructure to distribute funds to legal aid organizations helping homeowners facing foreclosures. State Courts Administrator Lisa Goodner says she has been promised $5 million for two purposes: to decrease the backlog of foreclosure cases and to help with technology required so judges will be able to work with an electronic court record, rather than paper, which helps move cases more efficiently.)
• $4.4 million to cover expenditures for criminal conflict cases paid in excess of the flat fees to cover an “unfunded mandate” beginning in July 2, 2012. Private attorneys take cases when the public defender and the criminal conflict and civil regional counsel have conflicts of interest, and may under certain circumstances earn fees more than the too-low flat fees prescribed in statute. Because of concerns about increasing costs, the state courts system and the legislature implemented cost-control measures. Although costs may stabilize as a result of the control measures, current-year funding is insufficient to meet projected expenditures.
• $5.5 million to continue eight drug court pilot programs — in Broward, Escambia, Hillsborough, Marion, Orange, Pinellas, Polk, and Volusia counties — targeted to a specific population at risk of ending up in prison. Federal funding of about $11 million expires on June 30, 2013. If the pilots do not continue, these offenders will likely end up in prison with higher rates of recidivism and higher costs. While a cell in prison costs $53.34 per day per inmate, the daily costs of the drug court is $20 for each participant. It is estimated that the expanded drug court initiative already has resulted in nearly $18 million in costs avoided for the State of Florida by diverting nonviolent offenders from prison.
Of course, many worthy programs will be at issue when the legislature convenes, and many lawmakers may be quick to say the economy has not fully recovered and the budget can only stretch so far without raising taxes.
But, the economy is improving. Consider this a call to arms to protect the judicial branch’s investments. We cannot allow the third co-equal branch of government to lose ground and slip backwards into crisis mode again.
As we walk the halls of the Capitol in Tallahassee, or have opportunities to talk to elected lawmakers in our own communities, let our message be strong and clear: It is only fair to grant the courts’ budget request that is only $30 million more than last year to repair our facilities and fairly compensate our dedicated personnel.
Anything less would be a gross injustice.