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Panel drives for adequate resources

first_img October 1, 2003 Gary Blankenship Senior Editor Regular News Panel drives for adequate resources Panel drives for adequate resources Senior EditorA key to adequate funding for Florida trial courts will be getting the support of the Governor’s Office before the 2004 session starts, according to court officials.Lawyers, judges, Bar officials, and others met last month during the General Meeting as the Supreme Court’s Revision & Communications Work and Advisory Group and heard that message. The panel is charged with marshaling support prior to the legislative session for adequate financing for the 2004-05 budget, when the state takes over more funding of the trial courts from counties. It considered a wide range of related issues at its meeting.Voters in 1998 passed Revision 7, which mandated that the state take over more fiscal support for trial courts from financially strapped counties, and implement the change no later than July 1, 2004. Lawmakers last year passed a blueprint for the switch, delineating what functions the state would pay for and what would remain county responsibilities.Sixth Judicial Circuit Judge Susan Schaeffer, chair of the Trial Court Budget Commission, told the work group that the drive for adequate resources began last month when she and other court representatives met with budget officials in the Governor’s Office. The goal is to get Gov. Jeb Bush to include “good, solid, full funding” for the courts in the budget he presents to the legislature next year.“This committee is going to help us sell the message and help us acquire the full funding we now need,” she added.Shaeffer said some changes are needed to the legislature’s blueprint, but overall she’s happy with the plan for shifting financing.“This year, our theme is ‘fill the bill,’” she said. “The real theme is ‘Justice for All Floridians,’ but I use the theme fill the bill. The success of the system depends on how well things are funded.”Work group Chair and Ninth Judicial Chief Circuit Judge Belvin Perry said there are many challenges for the courts and the work group ahead of next year’s session. Those include developing and carrying out education and communication program for legislators, the public, and others affected by the courts, including the business community.Courts must also work closely with court clerks, including a clerks’ group developing financial reporting data for the legislature, Perry said. He also said that The Florida Bar will continue to have a major role to play in Revision 7 money issues.As for last year’s bill (HB 113A) setting up the structure for the funds transfer, Schaeffer said the TCBC was generally pleased with it, but there are several “glitches” to be corrected in the upcoming session. “We don’t anticipate having any problem getting those fixes,” she added. PitfallsJudge Perry said he has been appointed to represent the chief justice on a clerks committee that is working out Revision 7 issues. That has generally been going well, but he reported a problem with a way the clerks proposed accounting for fines.For civil traffic infractions, clerks want to report all the money as owing, even before the defendant goes to court, Perry said. Likewise on criminal charges, the clerks want to list the maximum fine available, and then list that as waived or not assessed if the judge doesn’t impose the maximum allowed.“We pointed out to them that assessments cannot precede adjudication,” Perry said. “That was a fundamental thing.”Schaeffer said that practice would pose a particular danger to the courts, because the clerks would wind up reporting to lawmakers that perhaps hundreds of millions of fines were not being imposed and collected by the courts. That could lead lawmakers to blame the courts for not raising enough money to be self-financing, or at least to reduce the burden on the state budget.In reality, she added, the fines wouldn’t be collected if imposed.“You can’t get blood out of a turnip,” Schaeffer said. “These criminals aren’t the upper echelon of society with good paying jobs.”The implications for courts are serious. Many defendants, facing the possibility of large fines, will refuse to accept plea bargains, she said, tying up scarce judicial time. And more time will be taken up as judges try to collect fines that in reality will never be paid.“If we can get court costs and supervisory costs, we are lucky,” Schaeffer noted. “If anyone thinks we are going to get these court costs on the back of criminals, they are sadly mistaken.. . . There’s nothing that says in every case the judge is supposed to impose the maximum fine. That’s ridiculous.”Bar President Miles McGrane, noting that clerks will initially have to try to collect the uncollectible fines, said that should be pointed out to clerks.“If a judge assesses a fine that they’re never going to collect, it puts them in the soup,” he said.It also could raise equal protection issues in that ending probation can depend on paying costs and fines. Well-to-do miscreants could pay and end their probation, while the poor criminals would be unable to. Bar SupportMcGrane told the committee the Bar will continue its efforts in and out of the legislature to support full financing for the trial courts.“I promised the chief justice this would be high on our radar screens,” McGrane said.He listed several concerns:• One is not only that the trial courts won’t be adequately funded, but that for the past two years the legislature has not approved any new judges.• Last year’s bill also removed the county option of adding money to filing fees to support legal aid programs, and McGrane said the Bar wants to explore ways to replace that funding.• He also said Revision 7 is not being carried out as intended by its drafters, the Constitution Revision Commission.“This amendment was meant to bring all of the counties up to parity and this is bringing all of the counties down to the lowest common denominator,” McGrane observed.He said that he, President-elect Kelly Overstreet Johnson, and the Board of Governors would soon decide how the Bar can best support the courts’ need for funding in the coming legislative session. He pledged the Bar would cooperate closely with the work group to accomplish its goals.The work group reviewed a video proposed for wide distribution to Floridians outlining the benefits the court system provides to the state, handling more than a million cases annually each in its criminal, civil, and family courts.Also presented was a communications plan that included the courts, the Bar, local governments, and plans to educate various groups in the state.Perry noted that plan included that every circuit should draw up a profile of how its operations would be affected by Revision 7 changes and proposed funding.It also calls for educating court workers about court operations, he said, noting some judges don’t pay attention to how court administration works as long as their dockets and paperwork are handled.“It is very imperative that every judge and every person who works for the court system are able to answer certain core questions about court operations,” Perry said.He also agreed with McGrane and others on the work group that involving the business community is critical.As McGrane noted, “The business community is realizing they, too, need the courts.”Other members said if the courts are backlogged, businesses won’t be able to get routine disputes resolved and routine matters, such as mortgage foreclosures, will be delayed. The business community, Perry noted, has important ties to lawmakers and can help get the needed funding.“Our goal is to lead a consistent statewide community-based effort that will educate our justice system partners, community leadership, policymakers, and general public about the tremendous importance of Revision 7 and its impact on Florida’s trial courts,” Perry said. “If we don’t do it, nobody else will.”last_img read more