Hold on Tight to What We Have
Brace yourself. We’re in for another wild ride fighting for the judiciary as a co-equal third branch of government — and not just another state agency.
The Florida Legislature is back in session, and lawmakers are constrained by a budget shortfall of at least $3.6 billion and a new governor insistent on cutting $2 billion in taxes and $5 billion in spending.
We’ve got to hold on tight to what we already have for the judicial branch, while seeking a more stable long-term funding source not so dependent on foreclosure filing fees.
Here’s what we have for fiscal year 2010-11: $370 million in the State Courts Revenue Trust Fund, fueled largely by revenues from foreclosure filings that are, at least temporarily, declining — which is about 84 percent of the total $439.6 million state courts budget. But the governor’s budget removes the clerks from the state budget, returning to the way things were before the trust fund: funding clerks from filing fees and fines at the local level.
And the governor wants to cut nearly $39.6 million from the courts: 574 lost support staff positions for judges.
After two years of major budget cuts, in 2009, at the request of the court and legal profession, the legislature provided a dedicated source of state revenue to fund operations of the judicial branch. This trust fund is essential because the court system’s budget is almost entirely devoted to compensation for judges and court staff, and to expenses directly related to resolving cases. But, as Chief Justice Charles Canady told the Senate Judiciary Committee, once the foreclosure mess is mopped up, “it would be our goal in the judiciary to find a more stable, long-term funding source for us.”
While $439.6 million is real money, let’s remind lawmakers searching for budget cuts that the court system budget is only seven-tenths of 1 percent of Florida’s overall state budget. I’ve been traveling around our state talking about this subject, and very few of us, even lawyers, know how miniscule the courts’ budget is, particularly when you consider what’s at stake: Citizens’ access to their courts — from the poorest pro se litigant to the biggest corporation. A fair and impartial judiciary, the very foundation of our system of governance. Timely resolution of disputes that keeps business humming.
What’s new to worry about this session is proposed legislation — S.B. 290 by Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey — that would reduce pensions for elected officials, including Supreme Court justices and all judges on the trial and appellate benches. This is particularly worrisome because the wages of Florida’s trial judges are nearly $16,000 lower than a 50-state model in statistical testing and analysis conducted by The Florida Chamber Foundation for The Florida Bar.
As part of the study, The Washington Economics Group surveyed current judges and attorneys to explore issues that impact the retention and recruitment of judges in Florida. A commitment to public service and the honor of the office were the top reasons given for wanting to be a judge. Good, experienced lawyers who seek such public service could make more money in private practice. But an additional incentive frequently reported is receiving the attractive retirement and benefits package now offered by the state.
Chief Justice Canady told the senators that it’s possible to fill the judgeships with a reduced compensation package. But, he so rightly said, “It’s not a question of filling seats that are on the bench. It’s a question of having highly qualified people on the bench. When I think about the power that an individual circuit judge has over the lives of the people who come before that circuit judge, it is something that absolutely requires a person who is highly qualified.”
Highly qualified judges and a court system funded adequately to carry out its crucial mission. That’s what we lawyers hold dear, and no matter how tough the fight over dollars becomes in the legislature, we simply can’t let go.