The Florida Bar

Florida Bar News

Other states feel the sting of court budget cuts

Senior Editor Regular News

Other states feel the sting of court budget cuts

Senior Editor

Could this be the future of Florida’s courts?

A system where courts are only open four days a week. Where no small claims cases are heard, and most other civil cases face long delays. Where there’s no money for public defenders for those charged with nonviolent misdemeanor property crimes and even some felony property crimes, such as car theft.

Or a system where upwards of 20 percent of the support staff have been laid off, where judges may not be able to find a clerk or a bailiff for their courtrooms. And where the public might find shortened hours when they come to do court business.

The former situation is one state courts in Oregon are recovering from after two years in increasing fiscal constraints. The latter is what state courts in Alabama are entering into.

Both situations are what court officials in Florida wish to avoid as they approach a critical legislative session next spring where the state will take over more court funding from the counties for operation of trial courts. Under a 1998 constitutional amendment, the state must assume that increased burden by July 1, but that mandate comes as the state continues to face an uncertain budget.

Court officials are worried that if they don’t get adequate resources, Florida courts could repeat the experiences of other states where court systems have had drastic reductions. The National Center for State Courts has been tracking how states have been coping with widespread fiscal difficulties in state budgets. Lisa Goodner, Florida’s state courts administrator, has received information from the NCSC, including on Oregon and Alabama, which are generally considered to have faced or will be facing the most serious crises.

“We’re looking to see what the impact of significant cuts of court funding have been in other states,” Goodner said. “It’s more to educate people what happens when court funding is cut.

“You would have a big impact on your civil division. We’ve seen some pretty dramatic things happen in terms of court closings and work slowdowns,” Goodner added. “We’ve not even considered that anything like that would happen in Florida and I don’t think it would, but the lines out the door could get longer if we don’t have adequate support for the system.”

Oregon’s budget crisis worsened during 2001-03 (the state budgets in two-year cycles), forcing the legislature to hold several special sessions and make ever-increasingly drastic cuts.

By last spring, trial and appellate courts were open only four days a week. No small claims cases were being heard. Many nonviolent crimes, including all property misdemeanors and some felonies, were not being tried because the state didn’t have money to appoint public defenders and courts didn’t have enough personnel to handle the cases.

And court staffing and funding was dramatically slashed.

A document prepared by court staff pointed out the problems. For the biennium, the state court budget was cut $21.4 million, or 9.2 percent of the original $237 million outlay. But that doesn’t capture the true difficulties because — due to ongoing financial problems — $13.6 million of the cuts fell at the end of the two-year budget, or last March, April, May, and June.

“This crisis in unprecedented,” said a document sent out by Oregon’s chief justice outlining how the courts would deal with the shortfall. “.. . The depths of these cuts will limit the system’s ability to meet its public mandate to uphold the law and constitution and to safeguard the state’s justice system. Under the current budget, the court can no longer provide all of the services it has traditionally provided. Service to the community, and the public’s access to the court system, will be curtailed.”

The plan included layoffs, not filling vacant positions, and cutting work hours — and hence salaries — by 10 percent for remaining court staff. The appellate, tax, and circuit courts were ordered closed every Friday. Of the more than 1,500 positions funded by the state’s general fund, the court system through layoffs, furloughs, unfilled vacancies, and cutting hours, lost about 400 full-time equivalent positions.

Many cases were simply delayed until the start of the new fiscal biennium on July 1. Those included small claims cases and misdemeanor “nonperson” charges where the defendant sought appointment of a public defender and to plead not guilty.

The document noted filings for small claims and misdemeanor cases could be accepted, but would not be set for mediation or a trial or action taken on motions to dismiss until the new fiscal biennium.

The document also set out a priority for handling cases, with violent felonies getting top priority followed by juvenile dependency matters and then domestic abuse matters. On the 18-item list, civil cases ranked 11th, probate ranked 15th, nonviolent felonies were ninth, and nonviolent misdemeanors and small claims were 17th and 18th respectively.

The lack of criminal prosecutions was credited with bolstering public support for more funding. An article in the Christian Science Monitor noted one person was arrested and released for car theft three times in four days. Another was arrested 17 times before being prosecuted.

“When people actually saw criminals go free, that caused quite a ripple in the public,” said Oregon State Bar Association President Charlie Williamson, in the Monitor. “People felt the courts were crippled.” The good news for Oregon is the new fiscal biennium brought a restoration to most of the cuts. Courts are now open five days a week and staff are being rehired to replace those who were laid off.

The business community — a constituency The Florida Bar is reaching out to — supported a 30-percent surcharge, effective until July 1, 2004, to help raise funds for the courts.

But Susan Klosterman, Oregon’s deputy state court administrator for business operations, said the effects are still being felt. Overall finances are still tight and the courts have to deal with the backlog of cases that built up last spring.

“We’re not really back to normal operations, because it takes quite a few months to fill positions,” she said. “The legislature left in August. That’s when we knew what our budget would be for this biennium.”

At least they know for a few months. The legislature balanced the budget by imposition a $800 million, three-year income tax surcharge. Most of that increase is being challenged in a public referendum set for February. If voters reject the surcharge — and polls indicate that is likely to happen — then more budget cuts are likely.

While the worst of Oregon’s problems may be (temporarily) over, Alabama’s are just starting. Voters there declined earlier this year to pass a proposed tax package to help state government through its fiscal crisis. The results have been an 18 percent cutback in most state agencies, and a 10 percent cut for the courts, or a little over $12 million, according to Randy Helms, Alabama’s administrative director of courts.

“At 5 o’clock today, we’re laying off several hundred people,” said Helms, speaking the day before Thanksgiving..

The state’s acting chief justice determined to set an example by cutting 20 percent of the court administrator’s staff, reducing that to 72, Helms said. A few years ago, it was just over 100.

But aside from that, the Thanksgiving layoffs were originally projected to cut 400 jobs for a total workforce of something over 2,000, Helms said. Somewhat ironically from a Florida perspective, where the state is taking over more funding from counties, in Alabama, counties are coming to the courts’ rescue. There the state pays 100 percent of the court costs, but now “a number of county commissions have stepped in to offer temporary funding to keep employees,” Helms said. “We have had a number of local funds that have been tapped into.”

That could save 147 of the 400 jobs, but Helms said the counties have been explicit that the help is for this year only and won’t be available next year.

With the cuts just kicking in, he said it would be awhile before the full impacts were known, but he had some predictions.

“Naturally, it’s going to slow down processing of cases. It’s going to slow down the collection of courts costs and fines, because there’s not enough warm bodies to collect the money,” Helms said.

Some court clerks said the cuts would leave them with a staff of two, which would make it difficult to both provide a clerk in the courtroom to help a judge and staff an office for the public — especially when someone is sick or on vacation, he added.

Some clerks are talking about closing during the lunch hour, opening late, and closing early to give the abbreviated staff time to handle routine administrative work.

The acting chief justice has asked the courts to cut back jury trials by a third which will save $1 million, Helms said, and courts are asking jurors to voluntarily waive their $10-a-day pay. Trial lawyers were concerned jury trials would have to be halted altogether, but that appears unlikely, he noted.

A special committee has been set up to look at ways to raise money. Two ideas being considered are to suspend drivers’ licenses or intercept state income tax refunds for those who don’t pay court levied costs and fines. The committee is also looking at raising the filing fee for a case, which Helms said at $200 is less than the cost of a speeding ticket. He noted a recent high profile class action case with 2,200 plaintiffs netted the state only the $200 filing fee.

An NCSC survey of states around the country showed most have felt the sting of budget troubles. Common strategies have been to close or restrict law libraries, limit travel and education, and not fill jobs that become vacant. Several also turned to layoffs. Earlier this year, Colorado had 250 unfilled positions, while Massachusetts had 1,000 lost through attrition or layoffs.

South Carolina’s judiciary has had a 21 percent reduction, which led to the elimination of alternative dispute resolution programs, cutting judges’ allowance for office expenses, and reduction of many other court services.

New Hampshire let 8 percent of its work force remain vacant, suspended jury trials for three months, and cut district court sessions by 10 percent.

The list goes on and on. And the question for Florida lawmakers and court officials is where Florida will be on that list next year.