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COVID-19 budget cuts claim a number of court projects

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Governor vetos funds for the Second DCA courthouse; new judgeships approved but without funding

Evening lighting historic State Capitol Building Tallahassee FloridaA new courthouse for the Second District Court of Appeal, funding for 10 new judgeships, and improvements for four county courthouses were part of the $1 billion in state spending Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed on June 29 in reaction to losses in state revenues due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Also cut was $4 million in operating funds for a new Miami-Dade mental health center intended to serve as a substitute for jailing people with mental-health problems and $250,000 for the Stetson University College of Law’s Veterans Advocacy Clinic. Both of those are separate from the judicial branch budget.

The biggest ticket item eliminated from the court’s budget was $21 million for the first phase of the new Second DCA courthouse, which is planned for Pinellas County. That court has been without a permanent home since 2016.

The court’s Lakeland courthouse was closed due to mold infestation and other problems and the DCA is in rented quarters at the Stetson University College of Law in Tampa, where the court has had a branch office for several years. Clerk’s offices are still in rented space in Lakeland.

According to the court’s website, “Because the space in Lakeland can no longer support oral arguments, the court holds oral arguments in Stetson’s teaching courtroom in the Tampa Law Center. Periodically, the court also hears oral arguments in county courthouses in various counties within the district.”

“It’s hard to know exactly what our future is,” said Second DCA Judge Robert Morris, quoted in the Tampa Bay Times. “We’re disappointed, but we understand…. If I were the governor, I probably would have made the same decision.”

DeSantis’s proposed budget did not include money for the construction of a new courthouse, but it had wide support in the House and Senate.

The Legislature approved $3.4 million for 10 new judgeships certified by the Supreme Court along with the necessary staff positions.

DeSantis signed HB 5301 which created the new judgeships and supporting positions. But in the letter to the Secretary of State confirming that action, the governor noted since the Supreme Court certified the new judgeships before the COVID-19 epidemic hit, and the courts have suspended jury trials and limited other operations, which casts uncertainty on the overall impact on judicial workload.

“This uncertainty, coupled with the change in the state budget outlook, require that I veto the funding associated with the additional judgeships,” DeSantis wrote. “I simply do not believe it is fiscally prudent to employ the additional judges at this time. However, by signing HB 5301, we will preserve the establishment of these additional judgeship with the hope that they can be funded as the state budget outlook improves.”

The unfunded judgeships include two new circuit judges in the Ninth Circuit, one each in the First and 14th circuits, four new county judges in Hillsborough, and one new county judge each in Lee and Orange counties.

According to a list assembled by the Office of the State Courts Administrator, other legislatively approved spending for the judicial branch vetoed by the governor include:

• One full-time position and other expenses for support of early childhood court programs.

• $400,000 for the Union County Courthouse and jail.

• $250,000 for the Nassau County Courthouse annex.

• $250,000 for Taylor County Courthouse improvements.

• $380,000 for Liberty County Courthouse improvements.

Although not part of the judicial branch budget, the state’s fiscal plan included $4 million for operations at the new Miami Center for Mental Health and Recovery. The center is expected to complete construction and open sometime next year; the excised funds were to help pay for operations.

The Miami Herald quoted Miami-Dade County Judge Steve Leifman, who has led efforts for years for better mental-health treatment as an alternative to jail, as saying the $4 million is part of the expected $10 million annual operating budget.

“That was a setback,” Leifman said. “This would have helped us get off to a good start. But look, we’re in the middle of a pandemic.”

Stetson College of Law could not be immediately reached for comment about the $250,000 cut to its Veterans Advocacy Clinic.

The clinic’s website describes it as a way to “teach students how to serve the needs of veterans as they appeal decisions that denied Veterans Administration disability benefits. Students will assist veterans as they file claims, appeal decisions at the local level, and in some cases provide assistance all the way up to the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims in Washington, D.C.”

DeSantis said his vetoes will help the state deal with loss of sales tax and other revenues stemming from the economic slowdown and avoid a need for a special legislative session to redo the budget, at least until after the November elections.

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