Supreme Court: With less support staff, courts need more judges

by David Royse, The News Service of Florida

Florida needs 71 new judges, 23 in circuit court and 48 on the county court bench, and should add a judge to the 2nd District Court of Appeal, the Florida Supreme Court said Thursday.

The primary reasons are an expected increase in foreclosure filings and already-backlogged courts, due in part to the loss of support staff, which has been cut in the face of the economic downturns and a drop-off in court funding from filing fees in recent months.

“We submit this certification recognizing the economic difficulties that continue to affect both the private sector and the public sector in Florida,” a unanimous court wrote in its annual report on the need for new judges. “Further, we acknowledge that state general revenues remain low, thereby creating competition between funding new judgeships and other critical state needs.”

Currently, there are 599 circuit judges in Florida and 322 county judges, in addition to the 61 district appeals court judges and the seven Supreme Court justices.

The need for new judges is despite a drop in felony filings and civil cases. But the drop in civil cases is mainly because of a voluntary moratorium on residential mortgage foreclosures that is expected to end soon and again clog courts with the cases.

Lower court judges told the Supreme Court that several circuits continue to have low clearance rates, high numbers of jury trials, and requirements for additional hearings in certain types of cases, among other factors.

One of the biggest problems in clearing cases is a lack of support staff, which has been cut as both filing fees and state tax dollars have declined.

“Our judges continue to absorb the work previously performed by magistrates, law clerks, case managers, and other supplemental support staff lost in the budget reductions of the last several years,” the court wrote. “Most of these positions provided direct case management, legal research, and adjudicatory support to our judges. Chief judges have advised us that the loss of support staff translates into slower case processing times, crowded dockets, and long waits to access judicial calendars.

“Restoration of case processing support staff lost in the budget reductions over the last three years remains a priority for the judicial branch,” the court said.

“In some jurisdictions, dockets are so full that it takes several weeks to schedule a hearing,” the court continued. “Similarly, lengthy jury trials must be scheduled months in advance. … This situation frustrates all who use the courts, especially litigants, their lawyers, and our judges. Chief judges continue to report concerns that judges are unable to devote sufficient time to hearings due to significant workload.”

The Supreme Court is required by the Constitution to determine the number of lower court judges that are needed and send its recommendations to the Legislature.

The court looks at case filing and disposition data, among other workload indicators in addition to recommendations by the judges on lower courts.

The court said the Legislature already has helped by paying for a foreclosure initiative this past year that made additional case managers and senior judges available to handle the cases, which did make a difference.

“Unfortunately, due to the severity and protracted nature of the crisis, our trial courts continue to struggle with heavy pending caseloads and the slow resurgence of foreclosure filing,” the court said.

The economic downturn has had another effect. The court said that evictions and landlord-tenant disputes have increased, and that some judges report debt cases increasing, impacting workload.

Meanwhile, the loss of civil traffic infraction hearing officers continues to take up judges’ time.

“In many counties, county judges are hearing traffic cases previously processed by the civil traffic infraction hearing officers,” the Supreme Court said.

The court asked the Legislature to make more money available for additional case managers, law clerks, magistrates and other support staff, and that it supports the state court system’s budget request, which calls for an increase in that area.

The biggest need for new circuit judges, the court said, is in the 5th Circuit, which includes Citrus, Lake and Marion counties, and should get four new circuit judges, and the biggest need for additional county court judges is in Miami-Dade County, which could use 10 more, the court found.

Meanwhile, the court said the 2nd District Court of Appeal, based in Lakeland, should get one additional judge, though the court asked for two.

“A number of factors are impacting the overall workload in the Second District, including changes in statutes requiring appellate review and clarification, changes in criminal and sentencing statutes, and growth in prison population and postconviction motions,” the court said. “Other factors impacting case processing include the unavailability of senior judges and fewer central staff attorneys to assist the judges with legal research and related case processing matters due to budget reductions.”

Gov. Rick Scott recently proposed a budget that court officials say would help the system, because it would put $280 million in general revenue into the court system, and remove its dependence on filing fees as its primary source of income.

The filing fee issue has bedeviled the courts. When foreclosures were keeping the courts busy, lawmakers switched the main funding source to the fees.

When questions arose over how foreclosures are being handled, several banks stopped processing them in a self-imposed moratorium. That made the courts budget wildly volatile in the past couple of years, and the state has had to make emergency fund shifts to avoid court closures and furloughs.

As recently as September, Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady had to ask Scott for an emergency transfer of more than $45 million to keep the courts running, and had already asked lawmakers to take a new look at the court funding scheme. The courts had already received another loan from the state general fund in the spring.