COURTS, LAWYERS, BUSINESSES ALLY IN FIGHT FOR MORE COURTS MONEY
By KATHLEEN HAUGHNEY
MIAMI, Jan. 16, 2009........Florida's top legal professionals are embarking on a lobbying effort to stop lawmakers from cutting money fromthe state's court system.
Slicing the court budget, lawyers and judges said Friday, will affect all Florida residents by decreasing the efficiency of the courts.
Over a two-year period, the Florida courts budget has been cut by about 10 percent and had 280 jobs eliminated. If Gov. Charlie Crist approves a budget reduction passed by lawmakers this week, the state court system's budget will stand at just more than $433.2 million. Last year, the court operated under a $491.2 million budget.
The Florida Bar for the past few months has been soliciting comments from around the state on how budget cuts have impacted the efficacy of the court system.
The answers: Thousands of foreclosure cases are clogging the courts; business lawsuits are taking months to resolve; and rising court costs have stopped families in the middle of divorce from taking action.
Public defenders have also complained that they can no longer handle their caseloads. The Miami-Dade public defender even filed a lawsuit to free the public defender's office from taking all cases.
"This is the third branch of government. It's embarrassing that we don't fund them at the same level we fund ourselves," said Rep. J.C. Planas, R-Miami, who is also a practicing attorney.
Chief Justice Peggy Quince, along with other members of the court system and the Bar have allied to push for additional money for the courts.
Business leaders have joined the lobbying effort as well, tying the court system and economy directly together. A study by the Washington Economics Group concluded that $17.4 billion in Florida's economic output is lost due to civil case delays each year.
William Large, president of the Florida Justice Reform Institute, an organization that advocates for the tightening of lawsuit rules, said the court's lack of funding sometimes slows down its ability to issue judgments quickly. For businesses often engaged in litigation, that's bad news.
"Because of the cuts to the judiciary here in Florida, we're seeing Fortune 500 companies moving to Alabama and other states instead of Florida," Large said.
Trust funds, like a couple new ones established by the Legislature this past week, are a good first step, many said. But there is no guarantee that lawmakers will not raid the fund in the future, leaving the courts without a source of income.
Lawyers and members of the judiciary who were in Miami Friday for a Florida Bar summit on state court funding said the cuts in this latest special session were not nearly as bad as they thought they would be.
But it still wasn't entirely good news.
"I guess we can be thankful it wasn't worse," said Bar President Jay White.