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May 1, 2017
Senate now considering judicial education bill

By Gary Blankenship
Senior Editor

A bill to remove Supreme Court oversight of judicial education programs has cleared its first hurdle in the Florida Senate, passing the Judiciary Committee by a 5-4 vote.

SB 748, like its House counterpart, HB 175, would remove the Florida Court Education Council from Supreme Court jurisdiction, create a 17-judge panel to run the program, and cut off most funding for judicial education if any part of the bill is found unconstitutional.

Sen. Greg Steube Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, sponsor of the bill and chair of the committee, said the bill was in response to what he saw as skyrocketing administrative costs for judicial education.

He said three court employees worked on judicial education in 2000, and since then as as many as 19 have worked on it in succeeding years, although he put the number of current employees at 17.

“Over the past several years, the amount they have paid for administrative costs has skyrocketed; they’ve got…I believe 17 administrative assistants at the Supreme Court [working on court education],” Steube said. He also claimed that administrative costs had gone from 23 percent to 44 percent, and that several judges, whom he declined to name, had approached him calling for removing the council from the direct control of the Supreme Court.

Eleventh Circuit Judge Scott Bernstein, chair of the Conference of Circuit Court Judges, spoke against the bill.

“The notion that the cost for judicial education has skyrocketed, and the out-of-pocket costs of the administrative costs is not accurate,” he said. “There were not three people doing this work in 2000. The number of people doing this work has been relatively stable. The difference is where the money came from. Back in 2000, they were paid out of general revenue and that was later at some time shifted to the trust fund. The number of people has remained the same.”

Bernstein also said the bill, amended to conform to HB 175, which is moving through the lower chamber, also has some apparent drafting errors. He said the bill specifically provided Court Education Trust Fund money for educating appellate court judges, new trial court judges, magistrates, and child support hearing officers. But it made no mention of continuing education for sitting trial court judges, which he said would affect 499 of the 599 circuit judges, or for court support staff.

Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Ft. Lauderdale, called the bill, “Proposed legislation where there is no problem….

“We don’t have a problem with the education of our judges; there’s no one complaining about the education of our judges.”

Steube, in his closing on the bill, rejected Bernstein’s claims about staffing levels, reading from what he said was a staff report that showed the number of employees paid through “executive direction and support and court trust funds” had gone from three in 2000 to five in 2002 to 13 a year later and then had risen to as many as 19 before settling at 17. He also said judges had come to him saying the program could be improved, but feared retribution if their names were made public.

Figures from the Office of the State Courts Administrator showed three different funding sources for judicial education employees in 2000, with a total of 16 employees. Ten were paid through general revenues designated for the Justice Teaching Institute; two were paid by other general revenues; and four were paid by the Court Education Trust Fund. The following year, 15 employees were used in judicial education with 12 being paid through the Court Education Trust Fund and the other three from the other two sources. The next year, the number of employees dropped to 12.5, and since then, most funding has come from the Court Education Trust Fund.

Staffing levels dropped to 12 in 2003-04, rose to 14.5 the next year, and reached 17 two years later. It has remained at 17 since, according to the OSCA figures.

“Currently, all except 0.5 FTE of the education staff are paid from the Court Education Trust Fund,” State Courts Administrator PK Jameson said. “There have been changes to the number of people working in court education through the years, but it’s not as dramatic as it may appear if you only look at the trust fund. Different funding challenges are met with different solutions within the court system each year. The Great Recession hit general revenue significantly, for instance. Funding for the courts has changed, in part, with changing circumstances and the source of funding can make the details of the staffing picture look quite a bit different from various funding sources when, in fact, it’s much the same overall. Court education staffing has remained relatively stable and, as we’ve presented before, efficient in providing vital and continuing education to thousands of judges and court personnel every year. Three of the staff are administrative, while the rest work directly on education programming.”

Previously released OSCA calculations also disputed claims over administrative costs. OSCA put those as 12 percent and said the remainder of staff time is used in curriculum development, instruction, or other non-administrative support activities.

As approved by the committee, the bill takes the 20-member Florida Courts Education Council out of the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and removes the court’s authority to appoint its members.

Where the current 20-member council includes the Florida Supreme Court chief justice, and circuit, county, and district court of appeal judges, law school deans and associate deans, a trial court administrator, court personnel, and members of a planning committee, the revamped council would have five DCA judges, 10 circuit judges, and two county court judges.

It would be housed at the First District Court of Appeal instead of OSCA offices. The original House and Senate legislation required the council to be located in the Orlando area.

SB 748 passed 5-4 in a party-line vote, with Republicans supporting it and Democrats opposing it.

It passed the Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice 3-2 on April 10 and next goes to the Appropriations Committee. HB 175 has passed its first two committees and is pending in the Judiciary Committee.

[Revised: 04-22-2018]