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Lawmakers approve funds to address court system pay inequities

Senior Editor News in Photos

Florida Supreme CourtHoping to reverse a troubling trend, the Legislature has agreed to appropriate $10.3 million in incentives to recruit and retain law clerks, case managers, interpreters, and other essential court workers.

The appropriation is tucked into a $90 billion proposed state budget that lawmakers are expected to approve in overtime on May 4, a day after the 60-day session was scheduled to adjourn.

Court administrators say sub-standard salaries are forcing even their most dedicated workers to look for better paying opportunities in local government and the private sector. Shortages in key positions, if not addressed, could result in court delays, officials warn.

Chief Justice Charles Canady told the Bar’s Board of Governors earlier this year that the appropriation is his top legislative priority.

In a question-and-answer session, Canady illustrated the problem with a hypothetical example.

“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, urged lawmakers not to ignore 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.”

State court salaries are so low, that scores of court personnel are taking second jobs, OSCA reports. For example, in the First Circuit, 22 court workers hold outside jobs. In the Seventh Circuit, 20% of court employees have requested permission to hold outside jobs.

While the salary incentive is settled, court officials were scouring the proposed spending plan Thursday, May2, to determine the fate of other spending requests.

Fourteenth Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Elijah Smiley was waiting to confirm a report that lawmakers have agreed to spend $1 million to repair the Jackson County Courthouse, which was heavily damaged by Hurricane Michael in October.

Smiley worked with his local legislative delegation to prepare a $1.6 million spending request, but $1 million would still “go a long way” to helping the court system recover, Smiley said.