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Lack of funds threatens court system.

Florida's courts are functioning at peak efficiency, but don't have enough money to meet the demands being placed on them.

Outgoing Supreme Court Chief Justice Fred Lewis, giving the state of the judiciary address at the Bar Annual Convention's Judicial Luncheon on June 19, spoke of his past year's frustration in dealing with legislators in trying to preserve court funding.

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"We must have a dedicated funding source if we ever expect to have a judicial branch that is an independent and a third co-equal branch of government. If not, I fear the decline will continue," Lewis told the capacity crowd. "The action [to get dedicated funding] cannot be only on the part of the judiciary. This fundamental issue that we are facing must be addressed by the Bar and must be addressed beyond the Bar."

He recounted that after the 2007-08 budget had been cut twice (about 6 percent) and was passed, lawmakers asked Lewis if the courts could handle another 10 percent reduction for the 2008-09 fiscal year.

"In my own humble way ... I told them 10 percent would be committing suicide and I made no bones about it," Lewis said, as the audience interrupted his speech with enthusiastic applause. "I expressed to them that I would not, while I stood for this branch of government ... voluntarily inflict that. They would have to impose that."

He also talked of a disconnect between what legislators told him personally and what he saw them quoted as saying in the media.

"As I meet and have met face-to-face with the people who are making these decisions, the words could not be more rosy, they could not be more our friends, they could not be more accommodating," he said. "But once the doors are closed, the message seems different. As I read the newspaper clippings, and they are quoting the legislative leaders they speak in terms of, 'suck it up ... bite the bullet, you [the courts] are just like any other agency'....

"This has not been spoken to me, but if those words are true, we have a real problem."

Lewis said he appeared before the Tax and Budget Reform Commission, which met last year and early this year, and went through the courts' finances. "We presented to them that we needed a dedicated funding source to deliver the justice system that Floridians expect and Floridians deserve," he said.

Court clerks have reported, the chief justice said, that more than $500 million is generated by courts fees, costs, and fines, but much of that is diverted to noncourt-related agencies. And state attorneys and public defenders report budget problems equal to the courts.

The answer, he continued, is for all branches of government to work together to find adequate funding, and for money raised in the court system to remain with the courts.

"Survival of the branch as you know it and as it should be depends on your willingness to engage all sectors of the citizenry, to engage all members of the judiciary, all members of the Bar, and to engage and inform the public," Lewis said. "We need to control the files, and we need to control the income, and we need to control the data."

On nonfinancial matters, Lewis said the court system is strong, and he listed several accomplishments:

* The court has completed an emergency operations plan that will keep the courts functioning following a disaster or a pandemic.

* A report on handling complex court cases has been completed and its recommendations are pending before the Supreme Court.

* Working with the legislative and executive branches, the court system held a mental health summit that resulted in a comprehensive plan to treat the mentally ill and prevent their revolving-door arrests and jailing, which ties up valuable criminal justice resources and fails to provide adequate treatment.

* A task force has been created to look at the broad range of technology issues. "Our technology is moving forward, and if we had the funding, we would be well along with e-filing for the appellate courts," Lewis said.

* The court system is working to address diversity issues, providing diversity training in every circuit, and addressing accessibility to the courts throughout the state. "Your judicial branch has been recognized by the Justice Department as a leader in the nation for solving access problems," he said.

* Working on a rule of procedure to preserve access to court files, especially in civil cases, which will include online access while preserving privacy for sensitive information.

* Improving the judicial information system, so judges and others involved with children's cases can have essential information at their fingertips.

* Despite pending layoffs and prior tight budgets, court employees remain dedicated to providing an efficient and effective court system.

"Today I tell you the personnel, the dedication, the determination and the desire to serve the system, it has never been stronger. But with funding, we have a problem," Lewis said in conclusion. "We must be as good as our promise."

By Gary Blankenship

Senior Editor
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Author:Blankenship, Gary
Publication:Florida Bar News
Date:Jul 15, 2008
Words:833
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