By Mark D. Killian
Adequate funding for the courts and bringing the implementation of e-filing in for a soft landing are the immediate goals of Chief Justice Ricky Polston.
Appearing at the Bar Board of Governors’ recent Tallahassee meeting, the chief justice reiterated the need for the judicial branch to be vigilant as its case is presented to the Legislature for funding.
“My first priority is not to get cut,” Polston said. “After that, we have some other things in our budget request we would like to see, like a 3.5 percent pay raise for our staff and maintenance-type issues.”
Court employees haven’t had a raise since 2006, despite having to do more with less after the elimination of 235 positions. Average court salaries now lag nearly 10 percent behind competing employers, according to the State Court System’s $474 million budget request for 2013-14 that was filed with the Legislature in October.
The budget request also seeks funding to complete major repairs at the Supreme Court in Tallahassee — including replacing the structure’s original 1948 roof — and long-delayed maintenance projects at the district courts of appeal.
Polston said he was grateful the branch did not sustain any “great cuts” last year and that the Legislature saw fit to resolve the cash flow problems the courts experienced a year ago due to declining foreclosure filings, which made up more than half of all court funding.
Polston said because a new funding formula was adopted by lawmakers last year, 79 percent of the court system’s budget now comes from general revenue sources instead of foreclosure filing fees, “so we are experiencing no cash flow problems.”
The chief noted foreclosure filings are beginning to pick up and the branch anticipates several hundred thousand new foreclosure filings this year and several hundred thousand more next year.
“A more normal amount of filings is about 70,000 a year,” said Polston, adding while the numbers of foreclosures are “way above normal,” they are down from the peak of about 400,000 annual foreclosure filings a number of years ago.
“But we do have a backlog and we are working on the backlog,” Polston said.
Polston said the $5 million the branch just received, as part of a $60 million appropriation from the national mortgage settlement reached with major banks by Attorney General Pam Bondi and other state attorneys general, will assist the courts in tackling that backlog.
According to the State Courts Administrators Office, $1.3 million of the appropriation will go to pay for additional retired judges to hear foreclosure cases and case managers to process and monitor the cases, ensuring they are ready for hearings when they go to judges. The remaining $3.7 million will go for technology, including converting paper documents to electronic records.
Lisa Goodner, state courts administrator, told a legislative panel in February that mortgage foreclosure cases are very paper intensive, and in many circuits, “they are drowning in paper.”
Polston said the new money is in addition to $4 million the Legislature made available in the current fiscal year to tackle foreclosure issues and that another $6 million for the coming year for foreclosure efforts is sought.
“We are dedicated at the branch to moving the cases, but with respect to all the parties involved with the due process rights,” Polston said.
Polston also praised the Bar for its efforts in supporting the court system’s funding requests.
“Let me express the court’s and the branch’s deepest gratitude to The Florida Bar for all that you do every single year in making sure that our branch and courts have adequate funding,” Polston said. “It is absolutely necessary, and incredibly helpful, what The Florida Bar does and all the extraordinary effort it goes through every year to make sure we get that funding.”
On the technology front, Polston said: “We are trying to get this court system into this millennium.”
A big part of that effort is the rollout of e-filing, which becomes mandatory for civil filings on April 1. Polston said the clerks have been hard at work building the e-filing portal that will enable lawyers to file from their desks.
“What we are really trying to do is bring our state court system up to speed with what the federal courts have been doing for years,” said Polston, noting, however, there will be challenges.
“Let me state the obvious,” Polston said. “There are 67 clerks in the state of Florida. Revision 7 to Art. V of the Florida Constitution kept funding for those computer systems locally. Not with the state. So the clerks have bought computer systems not always focused on what the trial court needs … so there are different computer systems throughout the state.”
That, he said, has created some compatibility issues with the portal and the clerks’ systems.
“It is slow and it is ugly and it is a deliberate process, but we are moving the ball down the field,” he said.