Florida court system in trouble

Last week all members of the Florida Bar received a message from Chief Justice Harry Lee Anstead of the Florida Supreme Court, in which he asserted that “the budgets now pending in the Legislature cut muscle and bone throughout the state court system.”

I refrained from posting the letter because I no longer live in Florida, and I thought it might be presumptuous of me to dedicate a post to the issue.

But today Johnnie Byrd, the Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, responded, cc:ing all members of the Florida Bar and accusing the Chief Justice of “inaccurate statements and the use of hyperbole regarding the efforts of the Florida Legislature.”

I side with the Chief Justice.

You can read both letters below.

From the Chief Justice

Dear Florida Bar Member:

Our state legal system is at grave risk and needs your immediate help. While we are all sworn to uphold the independence of the courts in their decision-making, the reality is that the courts are entirely dependent upon the Legislature to keep our courts operating every day. The budgets now pending in the Legislature cut muscle and bone throughout the state court system. If left to stand, they will harm the operations of the courts in all communities across the state, affecting you and your clients for years to come.

As the leader of Florida’s justice system, I am compelled to ask you, my colleagues, to immediately contact your state representatives and state senators and urge them to save our courts by restoring the extreme budget cuts now contemplated. You can find contact information at: http://www.leg.state.fl.us/

This is the urgent message we must convey about the immediate impact of these drastic cuts.

First, because of our focus on Revision 7 and the transfer of funding responsibilities to the state, we have submitted a bare bones continuation budget to the Legislature. However, the budget proposals cut essential existing positions throughout the court system. For example, the cuts would eliminate over one-third of the deputy court administration positions in the trial courts; one-fourth of the legal support staff for the Florida Supreme Court; and over one-fifth of the state courts system’s administrative office. These cuts will result in substantial delays in the processing of cases.

Second, the proposed budgets cut more than just people. I am especially concerned about the impact on local communities. The cuts call for crippling reductions in operating expenses and could result in layoffs or furloughs of court employees, curtailment of court operating hours, and elimination of court intervention programs that benefit families, children and other vulnerable citizens. Perhaps hardest hit by these proposals will be the business community if the courts are forced more and more to allocate decreasing resources to public safety and less to civil matters.

The reality of my concerns is underscored by what has already happened in other states. Faced with large budget reductions, states like Alabama have suspended civil and criminal jury trials for periods of time. Arkansas has reduced funding for court interpreters. New Hampshire has restricted public access to the courts. Oregon has deferred processing of small claims cases and of some nonviolent misdemeanor crimes, effectively releasing some petty offenders back onto the streets. South Carolina has eliminated mediation programs and reduced courthouse hours. North Carolina has reduced drug courts and pilot family courts operations, and Utah has actually closed some of its courthouses.

We in Florida, must avoid the experiences of these other states. We need to keep our courthouse doors open. We need to continue processing criminal cases in a timely manner to ensure public safety. We need to continue to resolve business and property disputes without the years of delay experienced in some states. We need to continue to help abused and neglected children find protection. We need to continue to take care of the elderly and infirm who rely on our probate courts.

Those who serve in the courts recognize that in difficult fiscal times, all must make reasonable sacrifices. However, the severe budget cuts now before the Legislature would cause frustrating delays and backlogs in the resolution of private and public disputes. They will make it more difficult for citizens to access their courts, and slow the wheels of justice for all Floridians. And, we must not forget that we are not just talking about another government agency or “bureaucracy.” We are talking about a Branch of Government, a system of justice that is fundamental and essential to our way of life.

Florida’s courts are a model of efficiency and service. They handle more cases and operate with fewer judges per capita than most other states. They serve the public well while consuming less that one percent of the entire state budget. And, as noted above, our budget proposal this year is essentially a standstill continuation budget.

Our legislators have an extremely difficult job to do in very trying fiscal times. Let us make sure that they fully understand the detrimental impact of the proposed cuts to the justice system on the communities they represent. If they do, they will move to restore funding to Florida’s courts system.

Please act now. Thank you.

Harry Lee Anstead
Chief Justice
Florida Supreme Court
comments@flcourts.org

From the Speaker

April 24, 2003

Chief Justice Harry Lee Anstead
Florida Supreme Court
500 South Duval Street
Tallahassee, FL 32399-1925

Dear Justice Anstead:

It was with great concern and with a degree of perplexity that I received your recent email to all members of the Florida Bar. Frankly, I was stunned as the tone of your email fell well below what I would have expected. Inaccurate statements and the use of hyperbole regarding the efforts of the Florida Legislature hamper the ability of all of us to pursue reasonable solutions to the complex issues we face. My current posture is best explained by a quote from Abe Lincoln, often the subject of malicious gossip, who said, “We should be too big to take offense and too noble to give it.”

While I am still not clear as to the intention of your email, I can assure you that the Florida House has only one goal – a high quality judicial system. Our mutual goal should be to help implement a judicial system that best serves our citizens.

I am sure you are aware that State Representatives Holly Benson and Joe Negron, both of whom have chaired committees which are critical to the courts, have dedicated hundreds of hours of valuable time in sincere application of their talents to developing fair solutions to the complex issues associated with this task. In addition, many other House members have dedicated valuable time to these issues, as they understand as well as you do, the critical role the courts play in securing justice for our citizens and insuring proper and effective access to the courts.

The Florida Legislature has addressed a myriad of issues during the 2003 Regular Session. We have been confronted by many challenges, all of which our Members have tackled with an earnest effort to seek solutions for the betterment of all of Florida. I do not know of any issue that has exceeded our efforts as we have addressed court funding and the implementation of the requirements of Article V.

Further, it should be stated that the Members of the Florida House value the input of members of the court in matters concerning the administration of justice in Florida. I always enjoy speaking with judges serving on the front lines of justice and of course always welcome your insightful comments.

I would expect that we can continue to move forward in seeking the best possible solutions under current environments. I look forward to working diligently, as do my colleagues, to make our judiciary the highest quality system that our constituents deserve. Your help is essential to these tasks and I look forward to continuing to work with you and other members of our court system.

Sincerely,

Johnnie Byrd
cc: Members of the Florida Bar


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