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Funds appropriated to address Judicial Branch’s pay disparities

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‘We are all very pleased that the Legislature has responded to what we need’

Now that the Legislature has signed off on the judiciary’s most urgent request — a $10.3 million incentive package for court workers — the Florida Supreme Court is saying thanks.

Chief Justice Charles Canady“Pay equity for court staff has been at the very top of the Court’s legislative agenda,” Chief Justice Charles Canady said. “So we are all very pleased that the Legislature has responded to what we need.”

For the past several months, Canady has been warning that non-competitive salaries are making it difficult for the courts to retain or recruit law clerks, interpreters, case managers, IT managers, and other essential court workers.

“The state courts cannot continue to function at the high-level Floridians expect if judges are losing their best employees to higher paying jobs with other public and private sector employers,” Canady said.

Addressing The Florida Bar’s Board of Governors earlier this year, Canady called the appropriation his top legislative priority and illustrated the problem with a hypothetical.

“For certain categories of jobs, we’re able to pay, let’s say, $40,000, and the sheriff’s office in the same area is paying $50,000,” Canady said. “Well, people may love this branch, but typically, they love their spouse and children more, and in reality, at some point, something’s got to give.”

A recent survey by the Office of State Courts Administrator showed that foreign language interpreters in state courts typically earn $20,000 less per year than their counterparts in the federal system. Low pay is being blamed for a statewide, 20.3% vacancy rate in the position.

Many circuits are also reporting a shortage of chief technology officers, where the average salary of $90,000 is as much as $56,000 less than national averages reported by industry recruiters.

Law clerks, who provide research and analysis for death penalty and complex cases, can earn $48,317 in their third year in the state system, according to the report. Yet, the City of North Port recently advertised an $89,920 to $134,881 salary range in a job posting for a third-year attorney.

Florida Bar President Michelle Suskauer, a former public defender, supported the budget request in a guest column that appeared in the Miami Herald.

“In the past 18 months, the 11th Circuit lost two senior clerks to higher-paying jobs and two separate recruitment efforts failed to fill those vacancies,” Suskauer said. “All employers know this to be true: If you want good staff to stay on board, you need to let them know they matter.”

After the session, court administrators were also breathing a sigh of relief.

“I am glad to be back as a part of the team to see this much-needed appropriation make it into the budget,” said Lisa Kiel, interim state courts administrator who returned to the position at the start of the legislative session. “These raises for staff are incredibly important to attract and keep the people working so hard for Florida’s courts.”

The $91.1 billion spending plan contained more welcome news for the judiciary, with lawmakers agreeing to fund new judge positions for the first time since 2006.

The budget calls for adding two new circuit judges, one in the Ninth Circuit and one in the 12th Circuit, and two new county court judges, one each in Citrus and Flagler.

Lawmakers fell short, however, of following the Supreme Court’s exact recommendation.

Justices in January certified the need for two additional circuit judges in the Ninth Circuit, one new circuit judge in the First Circuit, and a new circuit judge in the 14th Circuit. Justices also certified a need for four additional county judges in Hillsborough.

At the same time, justices recommended decertifying two county judges in Brevard and another county judge in Pasco.

In the end, lawmakers declined to decertify any judgeshinps.

During House consideration of the bill, HB 5011, Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, asked why the legislation did not follow the Supreme Court’s recommendations on new judges, including the four new county judges sought for Hillsborough County.

Rep. Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, replied that “the Legislature and the court share constitutionally a dual role in that process [of creating new judgeships].. . . In negotiations with the House and Senate, these four have been put on.”

The new judicial seats become effective July 1.

In another nod to the judiciary, the Legislature also agreed this year to grant permanent permission for Supreme Court justices who reside outside the Capitol’s Leon County to maintain remote chambers. Five of the court’s seven justices are or have been authorized to use that provision, which lawmakers had to renew each year in the budget process.

Last July 2, Chief Judge Charles Canady signed an executive order allowing remote chambers for him (Lakeland), Justices Jorge Labarga (West Palm Beach) and Alan Lawson (Orlando), and then-Justices Barbara Pariente (West Palm Beach) and Peggy Quince (Tampa).

On March 4, Canady signed another order allowing remote chambers for new Justices Barbara Lagoa and Robert Luck (both in Miami).

Senate budget Chair Rob Bradley, R-Orange Park, said the provision allowing remote chambers for Supreme Court justices has been included in annual budget bills but putting it in statute will eliminate the need to keep reauthorizing the request. The item appeared in the 2018-19 budget and again in the proposed 2019-20 budget.

The bill passed the Senate 36-0 on May 1 and carried the House 108-2 the next day, and was sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis, who will get to appoint the four new judges if he signs the legislation.

In yet more welcome news for the courts, the budget includes $1 million to repair the Hurricane Michael-damaged Jackson County Courthouse. Local legislative delegation members requested $1.6 million, but 14th Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Elijah Smiley said the money would still “go a long way,” toward recovery.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has not mentioned the court appropriations since the budget passed, and they are expected to stand.

But DeSantis has yet to reveal exactly how he will exercise his line-item veto power.