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Court budget set

Senior Editor News in Photos

New Sixth DCA funded; judges, state attorneys, and PDs to see pay bumps

Florida courtsThe Florida Legislature wrapped up an overtime session by granting final approval to a $112.1 billion budget that includes $50 million for a Sixth District Court of Appeal in Lakeland, the first new district court since 1979.

The House voted 105-3 and the Senate 33-0 on March 14 to approve an FY 2022-2023 spending proposal, the largest in Florida history and a 10% increase over the previous year. The plan calls for $48 billion in general revenue, an $8 billion increase.

Sen. Kelli Stargel

Sen. Kelli Stargel

“We built a budget that has a strong foundation,” said Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland. “This budget puts Florida on a responsible path forward.”

When the House and Senate failed to reach a compromise in time to adjourn by Friday’s deadline, Stargel acknowledged that “it’s harder” to reach consensus in the rare times there’s a surplus.

Judicial Pay Raises

Budget negotiators treated court spending requests generously, and included Chief Justice Charles Canady’s top priority, a 10% pay raise for trial court judges.

Under the proposal, effective July 1, a circuit court judge’s salary would increase from $165,509 to $182,060, and a county court judge’s salary would rise from $156,377 to $172,015.

Although the courts did not request it, the proposed budget would also increase a Supreme Court justice’s salary from $227,218 to $239,442. A district court of appeal judge’s salary would increase from $192,105 to $202,440.

Pandemic Recovery Plan

Lawmakers agreed to the court’s request for slightly more than $10 million in non-recurring dollars to fund a second year of a trial court Pandemic Recovery Plan, and for nearly $600,000 for a Supreme Court Fellows Program, items that Gov. Ron DeSantis included in his proposed budget.

However, the proposed budget remains just that — a proposal — until DeSantis exercises his line-item veto authority. Last year, DeSantis’ vetoes totaled $1.1 billion.

Sixth DCA

Lawmakers agreed to fund seven new district court of appeal judgeships, and a new county court judgeship for Lake County, which the Supreme Court certified in a November 21 opinion and December 22 supplemental opinion. The opinions were based on a majority recommendation of the District Court of Appeal Workload and Jurisdiction Assessment Committee that Chief Justice Charles Canady appointed in May.

In the November opinion, justices wrote that a Sixth DCA would enhance access to oral arguments and “foster public trust and confidence” in the judiciary.

But in his lone dissent, Justice Ricky Polston noted that “under our annual certification process for the need for additional judges, no district court requested certification of additional judgeships, and none are justified by the average projected judicial need analysis performed.”

Several lawmakers also questioned the need for a Sixth DCA.

“There was not a chief judge in any district court of appeal that indicated that there was a need for new judges, let alone a Sixth District Court of Appeal,” said Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando.

The Supreme Court’s opinion did not specify a location for the Sixth DCA headquarters or request funding for a new court facility.

The House and Senate differed over where to locate a Sixth DCA headquarters — the House proposed Pinellas County — and how to realign the judicial circuits, sending their respective bills to conference.

TOMMY GREGORY

Rep. Tommy Gregory

On the final day of session, the House voted 93-14 to approve a conference report for HB 7027 by Rep. Tommy Gregory, R-Bradenton, the House sponsor. The Senate approved the compromise 33-0.

Gregory championed a new district court of appeal, saying it would make the courts more efficient, and tip the balance of power more in favor of less affluent litigants who can least afford delays.

“An efficient court system promotes confidence” in the judiciary, Gregory said.

The conference report adopted the Senate position on a Lakeland headquarters — and requires the facility to be named in honor of former Second District Court of Appeal Judge Oliver Green, a decorated combat veteran who died in August.

Negotiators agreed to follow another Supreme Court recommendation, with the compromise proposal stating that “no judicial vacancies may be deemed to occur as a result of the addition of a sixth appellate district or district realignment.”

At the urging of First DCA Regional Counsel Candice Brower, negotiators dropped a provision to create a corresponding sixth regional Office of Criminal Conflict and Regional Counsel, which Brower said would be unnecessary.

Under the compromise proposal, the First DCA would be composed of the First, Second, Third, Eighth, and 14th judicial circuits. The Second DCA would be composed of the Sixth, 12th, and 13th judicial circuits. The Fifth DCA would be composed of Fourth, Fifth, Seventh, and 18th judicial circuits. The Sixth DCA would be composed of the Ninth, 10th, and 20th judicial circuits.

The Third DCA and the Fourth DCA would remain unchanged.

Under the compromise, the number of judges in the First DCA would decrease from 15 to 13; the number of judges in the Second DCA would decrease from 16 to 15; the number of judges in the Fifth DCA would increase from 11 to 12; and the new Sixth DCA would have nine judges. The Third DCA and the Fourth DCA would retain the same number of judges, 10 and 12 respectively.

State Attorneys and PDs

Sen. Keith Perry

Sen. Keith Perry

Senate criminal justice spending Chair Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, told his colleagues that when granting across-the-board pay raises for state workers, negotiators didn’t forget “our hard-working state attorneys and public defenders.”

Under the budget proposal, front-line prosecutors and assistant public defenders would see raises of between $5,000 and $10,000 dollars.

Earlier this year, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle told lawmakers the money is desperately needed to stem a crisis in turnover.

“I am grateful to the Legislature for these historic increases and hope these positive changes will impact our ability to recruit new team members and retain those of you who have continued to make the sacrifice on behalf of our community,” Fernandez Rundle wrote in an email to her staff after the compromise was announced.

Lawmakers also agreed that the state would continue to pay Bar fees and for continuing education courses for state workers whose jobs are contingent on being a member of the Bar.

Other Funding

Other court spending priorities in the proposed budget include:

• $4.5 million in mostly non-recurring dollars to complete a new appellate case management system.

• $1.85 million for “post-pandemic proceedings” to continue remote court operations. The courts requested $10.8 million, with $3.1 million of that in non-recurring dollars.

• $943,825 for furnishings for new and renovated courthouses in the Second, Fifth, Eighth, Ninth, and 14th circuits. However, lawmakers did not include $2.1 million the courts requested for replacement furnishings in the 11th Circuit.

• $500,000 for Liberty County Courthouse improvements.

• $510,000 for a Taylor County Courthouse improvement project.

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