But asks that facility and operational issues be funded first
By Mark D. Killian
While Florida could sure use 64 new judges to keep up with caseloads, there are more pressing “facility and operational issues” the Supreme Court would rather see funded first.
The court released its annual judicial certification opinion December 20, calling for 47 new county judges, 16 new circuit jurists, and one new district court of appeal judge. But the justices acknowledged that the state’s ongoing economic problems — while improving — will make the creation of any new judgeships problematic.
“We recognize that the funding of new judgeships is an expensive proposition, especially during difficult economic times with diminished state revenues,” the unanimous court said.
“We encourage the Legislature to first fund the Judicial Branch Fiscal Year 2013-14 Legislative Budget Request, as there are significant facilities and operational issues contained therein which merit funding,” the justices said. “To the extent funding is available, we urge the Legislature also to consider our certified need for additional judges.”
It’s been six years since the Legislature created any new judgeships.
The State Court System’s $474 million budget request for 2013-14 — filed with the Legislature in October — seeks a 3.5 percent competitive salary adjustment for all state courts system employees and funding for long-delayed court system buildings and facilities maintenance projects.
Court employees haven’t had a raise since 2006, despite having to do more with less after 235 positions were eliminated, and average court salaries now lag nearly 10 percent behind competing employers, according to the budget request.
Circuit Trial Courts
In determining the number of new trial court judges needed, the court said it examined case filing and disposition data, analyzed various judicial workload indicators, applied a three-year average net need, and considered judgeship requests submitted by the lower courts.
“We observe that state revenues, while gradually improving, continue to lag, thereby creating competition between funding new judgeships and attending to other critical state needs,” the court said. “Yet, as we have noted in previous opinions, our judges and court staff continue to work conscientiously to administer justice and resolve disputes promptly. They do so despite a demonstrated need for new judges and with a smaller staffing complement.”
The court said there has been a “slight increase” in probate and circuit civil filings; however, felony, domestic relations, juvenile delinquency, and juvenile dependency filings have decreased.
“The reduction in felony filings corresponds to a decline in arrests, as reported by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement,” the court said. “Also, while it may be too soon to indicate a sustained downward trend, recent juvenile justice reforms undertaken by the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice may also be resulting in fewer juvenile delinquency filings.”
The court noted FDLE reports felony arrest rates dropped 6.5 percent from 2010 to 2011.
Notwithstanding the decreases, the justices said more circuit judges are needed.
“This three-year average net need reflects sustained workload over a multi-year period,” the court said.
A number of workload trends are affecting court operations throughout the state. Several of the chief judges cited problems of fewer staff to assist with case processing matters, substantial pending caseloads, high jury trial rates, reduced clearance rates, and statutory requirements requiring additional hearings for certain case types in civil, criminal, and family law as trends contributing to judicial workloads.
Judges continue to absorb the work previously performed by case managers, law clerks, magistrates, and other supplemental support staff lost in the budget reductions of recent years, the court said.
“The consensus among chief judges is that the loss of support staff translates into slower case processing times, crowded dockets, and long waits to access judicial calendars.”
The court also said workload associated with the residential mortgage foreclosure crisis continues to impede disposition times and rates in the circuit civil divisions.
“Due to the severity and protracted nature of the crisis, our trial courts continue to struggle with heavy pending caseloads and the slow resurgence of foreclosure filings,” the court said. “Further, this crisis has had a ripple effect on the workload of other court divisions as chief judges and administrative judges allocate limited court resources to address demand.”
The court did note the Legislature, through the Foreclosure Backlog Reduction Initiative, provided dedicated funding last year which enabled the courts to secure the services of additional senior judges and case managers. Resources from the national mortgage settlement agreement also have been made available to assist the courts in addressing the foreclosure caseload.
“This court is grateful for this funding,” the justices said. “The case managers and senior judges made available through this funding are in place to make a difference in reducing the foreclosure backlog throughout the state.”
Here’s where the court said the 16 new circuit judges are needed:
* For the First and Fifth circuits, three new circuit judges each.
* For the Seventh and 20th circuits, two new circuit judges each.
* For the Fourth, Sixth, Ninth, 14th, 15th, and 19th circuits, one new circuit judge each.
The justices said county court workload remains high and unlike circuit courts — which have witnessed a slight decrease in judicial need — the need for new county judges is “significant” and “holding steady.”
“In select jurisdictions, some chief judges report that credit card debt cases and landlord tenant cases are increasing county court workload,” the court said. “Moreover, the loss of civil traffic infraction hearing officers in county court continues to increase county judge workload as these cases are shifted back to the judicial dockets throughout the state. These factors contribute to a high county court judicial need.”
Another sustained trend in both county and circuit courts is that pro se litigants continue to impact Florida’s court system, the court said.
“All divisions are experiencing an increase in self-represented litigants,” the court said, noting pro se litigants are frequently unprepared for the rigors of presenting evidence, following rules of procedure, and generally representing themselves in court.
“Consequently, they often require enhanced judicial involvement, which entails lengthier hearings, rescheduled hearings, and court delay.”
Here’s where the court said the new 47 county court judges are needed:
* For Miami-Dade County, 11 new county judges.
* For Broward County, six new county judges.
* For Duval and Palm Beach counties, five new county judges each.
* For Hillsborough County, four new county judges.
* For Orange County, three new county judges.
* For Volusia and Lee counties, two new county judges each.
* For Citrus, Lake, Marion, Flagler, Osceola, Manatee, Sarasota, Seminole, and St. Lucie counties, one new county judge each.
The Second District Court of Appeal requested two additional judgeships, citing its current average weighted judicial workload of 315 cases per judge and Florida Rule of Judicial Administration 2.240(b)(2)(B), which provides that a presumption of need arises “where the relative weight of cases disposed on the merits per judge would have exceeded 280 after application of the proposed additional judge(s).”
A number of factors contribute to the overall high workload in the Second District, including increases within the civil, criminal post-conviction, other criminal, juvenile, and family case categories, the court said. The Second DCA chief judge also cited a 20 percent increase in its pending caseload since FY 2007-08 in his call for new judges.
Clearance rate trends also demonstrate the backlog building in the Second District. In FY 2011-12, there were 6,834 cases filed and 6,018 cases disposed, a clearance rate of 88 percent. For the same period, with respect to criminal judgment and sentence cases, there were 1,720 cases filed and 1,248 cases disposed, reflecting a clearance rate of 73 percent.
“The Second District also notes that despite high caseloads and a reduction in resources including personnel, the judges and staff have made every effort to properly execute their responsibilities,” the court said.
“However, they do so knowing that trying to absorb this increased workload limits the time available for the consideration of each case and the writing of opinions.”
The Supreme Court said it is concerned about a diminished quality of justice at the Second DCA resulting from high workload and a loss of resources.
“While the Second District Court of Appeal has requested that two additional district court judges be certified, our analysis of the three-year weighted dispositions per judge average indicates that they do not meet the threshold of 280 weighted dispositions per judge after a second judge is added,” the court said. “Therefore, we certify the need for one additional district court judge in the Second District for Fiscal Year 2013-14.”
The court acted in case no. SC12-2398.