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January 15, 2014
Court calls for 49 new judges

But asks the Legislature to prioritize other court system needs

By Mark D. Killian
Managing Editor

The Florida Supreme Court has called for the creation of 49 new judgeships — 46 for the trial courts and three for the appellate bench — in its annual certification opinion.

The court released its call for new judges December 19, asking for 39 new county judges, seven new circuit jurists, and two new judges for the Second and one new judge for Fifth district courts of appeal.

But the justices also acknowledged that as the state’s economy emerges from recession, they are mindful of the competing funding needs within state government and asked the Legislature to give priority to issues requested in the Judicial Branch’s FY 2014/2015 Legislative Budget Request.

That request, released in October, seeks 42 new court system positions and $33 million in new funding over the current court system budget of $443.4 million, a 7 percent increase. The court’s current budget is 0.6 percent of the total state budget of $74.2 billion.

The upcoming fiscal year’s budget request makes increasing judicial branch employees’ pay a top priority. In July, court employees earning $40,000 or less received $1,400 raises; and those earning more than $40,000 received $1,000, the first raises in more than six years.

The new budget requests a minimum 3.5 percent competitive salary increase for all State Courts System employees, effective July 1. Judicial officers are included in the pay increase request, which totals $5.76 million. The budget request recognizes that there has been a big lag between salaries and the rate of inflation, which has increased 15.9 percent cumulatively over the past seven years.

A separate budget request for $9.86 million addresses the equity and retention pay issue spurring many employees to leave the judicial branch for higher paying jobs in the other two branches of state government.

Another 10 FTEs, at $1.18 million, would provide general counsel positions to the First, Second, Third, Seventh, Eighth, 12th, 14th, 16th, 18th, and 19th judicial circuits.

Of the new funding requested, $7.1 million — or 22 percent — is for facility maintenance issues for five courthouses: the Supreme Court, and the Second, Third, Fourth, and Fifth district courts of appeal buildings.

In its certification opinion, the court said “our judges and court staff continue to work diligently to administer justice, promptly resolve disputes, and ensure that children, families, and businesses receive the proper amount of judicial attention for their cases. They do so despite a demonstrated need for new judges and with a smaller staffing complement.”

The court said its most recent analysis of statistics indicates a slight increase in circuit civil filings and a 6 percent increase in probate filings. At the same time, felony and juvenile dependency filings declined by 5 percent, while domestic relations and juvenile delinquency filings experienced a 17 percent drop.

“Notwithstanding the decreases to most filing categories, our three-year average net need analysis continues to indicate that additional judgeships are necessary in our circuit courts,” the court said. “This three-year average net need reflects sustained workload over a multi-year period.”

The court said several chief judges reference high jury trial rates, substantial pending caseloads, and reduced clearance rates as workload trends continue to impact the trial courts. In addition, seasoned judges throughout the state continue to report that statutory revisions requiring additional hearings for certain case types contribute to case complexity and additional judicial workload. Some chief judges also note the effect of self-represented litigants on court time and resources, factors that contribute to judicial workload and court delay.

“Many of our chief judges lament the long waits associated with obtaining hearing times,” the court said. “In some circuits, dockets are so full that it takes several weeks to schedule a hearing. This is especially true for scheduling lengthy hearings.”

Here’s where the court said the seven new circuit judges are needed:

* For the Fifth Circuit, three new circuit judges.

* For the First Circuit, two new circuit judges.

* For the Seventh and Ninth circuits, one new circuit judge each.

Here’s where the court said the 39 new county court judges are needed:

* For Miami-Dade County, 11 new county judges.

* For Broward County, six new county judges.

* For Palm Beach County, five new county judges.

* For Duval County, four new county judges.

* For Hillsborough, Orange, and Lee counties, two new county judges each.

* For Citrus, Lake, Volusia, Osceola, Manatee, Sarasota, and Seminole counties, one new judge each.

It’s been seven years since the Legislature created any new judgeships.

The court noted 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. Most of the positions provided direct case management, legal research, and adjudicatory support to the judges.

“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 said.

Workload associated with the mortgage foreclosure crisis also continues to impact disposition times and rates in the circuit civil divisions, but the court said it did not calculate the excess foreclosure filings in this certification of judicial need.

The court said county court workload remains high, with judicial need holding steady.

“In select counties, some chief judges report that misdemeanor, domestic, and stalking violence cases are increasing county court workload. The reduction of civil traffic infraction hearing officers in county court, coupled with new workload associated with red light camera cases, continue to increase county judge workload. These factors contribute to a high county court judicial need.”

Self-represented litigants also continue to impact county courts as they do circuit courts.

“Frequently, self-represented litigants are unprepared for the rigors of presenting evidence, following rules of procedure, and generally representing themselves in court,” the court said. “Consequently, they often require enhanced judicial involvement, which entails lengthier hearings, rescheduled hearings, and court delay.”

The court said the Second DCA needs two additional judgeships.

“A number of factors contribute to the overall high workload in the Second District, including the fact that civil filings have increased 17 percent in the last five years,” the court said. “Further, their relative weighted judicial workload per judge has increased by 21 percent in the last five years.”

The chief judge of the Second DCA said the district continues to maintain the highest number of pending cases per judge, which means parties must wait longer for finality, which is “not good for families and it is not good for business.”

Likewise, the Fifth DCA needs another judge because the average number of cases per judge, 330, is the highest in the state.

“The Fifth District is the only district court in the state that has experienced a net increase in total case filings for the period of 2008 to 2013,” the court said. “It also has the highest number of trial court felony filings and the highest number of prison admissions on a per-judge basis of any of the district courts.”

The court acted in Case No. SC13-2296.

[Revised: 04-14-2014]