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Bill would boost pay for workers’ comp judges

Senior Editor Regular News

Workers’ compensation judges would get a $27,000 pay boost — their first raise in more than 10 years — under a bill that passed the Senate Judiciary Committee March 4.

It was one of a number of bills, covering topics as diverse as requiring court reporters to register with the Supreme Court to mandating criminal background checks for court mediators and foreign language interpreters, that cleared the committee.

Sen. David SimmonsCommittee Chair Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, introduced SB 780 and said it would pay judges of compensation claims the same salary as county court judges, or $151,822 a year.

Simmons said the $1.1 million additional costs for the pay increase would come from the Workers’ Compensation Administration Trust Fund established under F.S. §440.50. (Workers’ compensation judges are part of the executive, not judicial, branch.)

“There has been a significant difficulty in recruiting and retaining these judges and this simply brings their salary up to be consistent with county court judges,” Simmons said.

Paul Anderson, representing the Bar’s Workers’ Compensation Section, agreed.

“Because, in part, salaries have not gone up in well over 10 years, we’re seeing a pool of applicants that is smaller and less qualified in some areas of the state,” Anderson said. “The intent. . . is to assist us in attracting more qualified and more experienced attorneys so that when the governor [who appoints workers’ comp judges] is presented with a list of candidates to serve, he has some of the better and the brightest of attorneys.”

The bill passed 6-0.

Court Reporters

Simmons also introduced SB 968, which authorizes the Supreme Court to create a central registry for court reporters.

“Right now we do not have a methodology of keeping up with these court reporters or determining two or three years from now when a transcript is needed if the court reporter is around,” he said. “This simply provides a mechanism for at least keeping up with the court reporters.”

There is currently no testing or licensing required for court reporters, or any list of court reporters. Simmons noted in 1995 the Legislature passed a bill requiring the Supreme Court set up a system for registering, disciplining, and training court reporters. The court adopted rules, but the Legislature never approved funds for the system and it was never implemented.

“Simply keeping a registry would be an improvement,” Simmons said.

According to the staff analysis of the bill, “The lack of a central registry creates some concerns in the legal community. For example, if an attorney decides to order a transcript a significant amount of time after a proceeding took place but the reporter has moved, there is no central registry where the court reporter may leave a forwarding address where he or she may be reached. As a result, the record of the proceeding may leave with the reporter. Additionally, if an attorney wants to lodge a complaint against a court reporter, there is no professional board where the grievance may be registered.”

The bill would become effective July 1, and all court reporters would be required to register by July 1, 2020, and update contact information if they relocate.

The bill passed 6-0.

Other Action

Other bills clearing the committee, all by unanimous vote, included:

SB 656, sponsored by Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, that authorizes criminal background checks for court-appointed mediators and foreign language interpreters.

According to the staff analysis of the bill, the Supreme Court, through the Office of the State Courts Administrator, has been regulating both professions — mediators since 1988 and interpreters since 2006 — which included criminal background checks conducted through the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

However, in 2017, FDLE determined there was no statutory authority to conduct those checks, and Baxley said the bill is intended to fix that problem. It unanimously passed the committee.

SB 746, by Sen. Tom Wright, R-Port Orange, would make confidential certain personal and location information for judicial assistants and their spouses and children. Wright said judicial assistants deal with litigants, lawyers, and the public more than judges because of limitations on communications judges can have outside court proceedings. Those interactions leave the assistants “at risk of harm from unhappy litigants,” he said and justifies keeping confidential their addresses and other information.

SJR 690 mimics another constitutional amendment moving through the Legislature that prohibits the Constitution Revision Commission from “bundling” amendments it sends to voters. Except this measure applies to the lower-profile Taxation and Budget Reform Commission, which also meets at 20-year intervals, spaced 10 years after the CRC. Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-Miami, the amendment’s sponsor, said he supports the single-subject limitation for the CRC and thinks it would be a good idea for the TBRC. The TBRC is limited to examining the state’s financial issues but like the CRC is empowered to send constitutional amendments directly to voters.