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Lawmakers prioritize Florida courts

Senior Editor News in Photos

Florida trial and appellate judges will also see another round of pay enhancements under the latest budget plan

President Kathleen Passidomo

President Kathleen Passidomo

Florida courts would receive nine new trial judges and other long-term investments under a $114.7 billion budget the Legislature approved for FY 2024-25.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has yet to exercise his line-item veto authority, but the budget lawmakers signed off on Friday would continue a  recent trend of investing in court priorities.

Speaker Paul Renner

Speaker Paul Renner

Senate President Kathleen Passidomo of Naples and House Speaker Paul Renner of Palm Coast, both lawyers, stressed that the austerity plan anticipated the loss of billions in federal stimulus dollars.

“As the timeline to spend pandemic funds is coming to an end, we are making smart, fiscally responsible adjustments, and rightsizing our balanced budget to a level sustainable for the long term,” Passidomo said.

Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Chair Jennifer Bradley, a Flemming Island attorney, said despite the declining revenue, the budget continues to address recruitment and retention challenges in the justice system.

Sen. Jennifer Bradley

Sen. Jennifer Bradley

“Our budget focuses on the highest priority request of nearly all of our agencies with an across-the-board salary increase” for the courts, prisons, and juvenile justice, Bradley said.

When it comes to adding new judges, the proposed budget would go beyond what the court system recommended late last year.

The Supreme Court issued Order No. SC2023-1586 on November 30, 2023, certifying the need for one additional circuit court judge for the 20th Judicial Circuit, and five county judges — three in Orange County and two in Hillsborough County.

Lawmakers matched the Supreme Court certification and added a circuit judge in the First Judicial Circuit, and two county judges, one each in Santa Rosa and Columbia counties.

Only two years ago, lawmakers added seven new DCA judges to accommodate the creation of a new Sixth District Court Appeal.

Florida trial and appellate judges would also see another round of pay enhancements under the latest budget plan.

The FY 2024-25 budget would increase a district court of appeal judge’s salary from $212,562 to $218,939 annually. A circuit judge’s salary would increase from $191,163 annually to $196,898. A county court judge’s salary would increase from $180,616 to $186,034.

The budget also calls for fully funding the court system’s $1.8 million request for 20 child support hearing officers, and “child support hearing officer resources.”

The budget would fund $4 million for additional court reporting resources, $2.6 million for “due process resources,” and $1.9 million for case processing support — about half of what the court system requested for each category.

When it comes to bricks and mortar, lawmakers declined the court system’s $8 million request to begin construction of a Sixth District Court of Appeal courthouse.

Gov. DeSantis vetoed $50 million lawmakers earmarked for the facility when they approved the new Sixth DCA in 2022.

The budget would also fully fund a $1.8 million request for parking garage repairs and an air handling system in the Fifth DCA in Daytona Beach.

Lawmakers dedicated $98,000 to replace a Hamilton County Courthouse annex HVAC system, $600,00 for Hamilton County courtroom renovations, and $900,000 for ADA compliance and security upgrades for the Baker County Courthouse.

The budget would also include nearly $400,000 for an early childhood court in Southwest Florida.

Lawmakers also agreed to spend $250,000 on a “Judicial Cyber Resilience Initiative” for the First Circuit, which suffered a massive ransomware attack in September.

First Circuit Chief Judge John Miller told the Board of Governors in December that the circuit fully recovered, but court personnel were forced to respond creatively to prevent a major disruption of court operations. He urged every Florida lawyer to take the threat seriously and invest in better security.

“The reason I chose to speak on this today is to stress the importance of cybersecurity,” he told the Bar board. “Because it can, and it will happen to anyone.”

News in Photos