Courts brace for funding shift

first_imgCourts brace for funding shift Courts brace for funding shift Amy K. Brown Assistant Editor July 1, 2004, may seem like a long way off, but for Florida State Courts Administrator Rob Lubitz, the day is rapidly approaching.Lubitz told members of the Bar’s Family Law Section Executive Council in September that everyone involved in the courts should be aware that this day — the official date the state will assume the lion’s share of funding for Florida’s state court system — is looming on the horizon.“Chief Justice [Harry Lee] Anstead has called this ‘the major challenge to the courts of our time,’ and I don’t think that’s an understatement,” Lubitz said. “This move to state assumption of funding of the court system really has the potential to change how we do business in the courts and really put in jeopardy many of the innovative, progressive things this state has done.”Currently, more than half of the funding for the court system comes from the counties, Lubitz said, but it varies from circuit to circuit.In larger areas like Dade County, it’s a much higher percentage, while in smaller counties, the state already picks up the majority of the tab, he said. However, the courts currently operate on less than 1 percent of the state budget — 0.58 percent, to be exact.“Most of the new programs, most of the innovative programs are funded by the counties,” he said.And those programs face the greatest risk of getting short-changed in the funding process, he said.In 1998, a constitutional amendment known as “Revision 7” was passed that said the state will assume responsibility for the essential elements of the court system. Follow-up legislation was passed in 2000 that defined from a legislative perspective what constituted an essential element — judges and essential staff, juror compensation, reasonable court reporting, services for the disabled, construction of facilities for the Supreme Court and appellate courts, and foreign language interpreters.“If you look at that as the essential elements of the court system, that’s a pretty bare bones court system,” Lubitz said. “If that’s all we get, the court system will look very different July 1, 2004, when this is implemented.”In response, the Supreme Court formed the Trial Court Budget Committee and tasked the 21 members, including representatives from each of the circuits, with formulating a plan to deal with Revision 7. Their first move was to take inventory of all the functions of the courts that were funded by the counties, which they separated into four categories.“The Trial Court Budget Committee feels that we have a great court system, and pretty much everything we have now needs to be funded in some way or another,” Lubitz said. “Everything’s important. . . and ultimately, we want to fund everything. The reality is that might not be the case. You have to set some priorities.“The first priority in the system in the constitution was to determine what the central element in the court system ought to be — what legally and constitutionally we absolutely have to have in order to run a court system. Without funding in these areas, our court system would ostensibly have to shut down. This is the minimum.”The TCBC set out 10 things they felt were absolutely essential: judges and judicial assistants, court administration, case management, court reporting, court interpreting, mediation and alternative dispute resolution, legal aid and legal services to the court, psychological evaluations and expert witnesses ordered by the court, masters/hearing officers, and auxiliary aids and services.“Those are the core things we call essential,” he said. “I think you’ll recognize that a lot of those are specifically related to the work in family court. They have to continue to be in the state court budget and. . . that’s really where we would make our first stand to the legislature that these things have to be done.”The second category the TCBC addressed was “due process elements” — areas not defined as constitutional elements, but areas that are necessary. These include conflict counsel and psychological evaluations ordered by state attorneys and public defenders.“That leaves pretty much everything else,” Lubitz said. “Everything else, the TCBC defined as integrated functions. These are functions that we believe are necessary for providing a modern, responsive, efficient court system, but they don’t rise to the level of essential.”Lubitz said there are four options for dealing with the integrated functions: advocate for them to continue in the court budget; try to move them to another area of the state budget; make them local requirements; or make them local options.The third option — local requirements — is what Lubitz called “the crux of the matter.” Some have argued that everything nonessential can be a requirement, but, constitutionally, local requirements are those functions unique to a particular circuit or locality that meet local demands.The last category of court functions, local obligations, encompasses those few functions counties will be required to maintain funding for — local facilities, technology, and information systems. Uphill Battle At a recent meeting of district court judges, Senate President-designate Jim King, R-Jacksonville, and Rep. Dudley Goodlette, R-Naples, on behalf of House Speaker-elect Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, gave their perspectives on how the legislature plans to face Revision 7.Sen. King “gave a little bit of a bleak message,” Lubitz said. “Sen. King said that he felt he was facing, in his terms, approximately a $4 billion budget deficit. He indicated that, although he would like to be able to give the courts everything that they want, likely, they’d only be able to fund the essential elements from a state perspective, and that would be a very literal definition of what are essential elements.“He indicated there would probably be lost positions and the hope was that the courts wouldn’t be seriously short-sheeted.”But, Lubitz added, some better news came from Rep. Goodlette.“He basically said we have a great court system, and we don’t want to do anything that harms the court system. We want to continue it,” Lubitz said. “He implied that they were really going to lean on the counties to continue funding, or take funds from the counties to continue funding, the court system.” Getting the Message Out One of the most important duties of the courts this year and next is to formulate and implement a communications and education plan to educate legislators about the implications of Revision 7, Lubitz said. Earlier this year, Chief Justice Anstead formed a communications advisory group made up of court and Bar leaders, including Bar President Tod Aronovitz, former President Terry Russell, and President-elect Miles McGrane, and led by Ninth Circuit Chief Judge Belvin Perry, to formulate just such a plan.On September 22 (after this News went to press), in conjunction with a business meeting of the state’s chief judges at the College of Advanced Judicial Studies in St. Petersburg Beach, Perry and Chief Justice Anstead were set to task the chief judges to form Revision 7 communications committees in their home circuits.“The concept of these committees is to bring together key members of the Bar and the community, key business leaders, key criminal justice people, whoever they identify are the real decisionmakers, the movers and shakers in the community, to talk about the importance of the court system,” Lubitz said. “The idea is to energize these people to go out and talk to the legislators about what the courts do in the community.”Evan Marks, treasurer of the Family Law Section Executive Council, asked what the section could do to protect services specific to the family court system.“While I applaud the effort on a global scale to try to get funded, our section and the people we represent don’t want to lose their services,” he said. “I imagine there are similar people in the criminal section, in the probate section, in other sections, that are saying, ‘How do we hold on to our services?’”Lubitz answered that individual advocacy for specific services with the legislature could be effective, but the entire system should be the priority.“I think that if each of the various groups fights for just their piece, then I think we’re in trouble,” he added. “If we get case management in the family area, but we don’t have court administration. . . then the system won’t work. I think if we break into various groups, each clawing for their own piece of it, that could unravel the system.”Bar President Aronovitz, who attended the executive council meeting to make a Dignity in Law presentation, added, “This is such a critically important issue.. . . We need to get excited about this.. . . “We need to get the message out to the legislature that banks aren’t going to be able to go to court to prosecute foreclosures. Landlord/tenant evictions aren’t going to take place. The criminal court justice system is going to really be hindered in its ability to prosecute cases. It’s a very, very frustrating situation.“We all know in our communities members of the House and Senate. It’s really important now, more than ever, that you pick up the phone and call somebody you know. Go have a cup of coffee with them. Explain to them your practice and how you practice law, how you move your cases through the family courts and how our judicial system works, and how vitally important what Rob is talking about is.“If we don’t do it, nobody’s going to do it.” October 1, 2002 Assistant Editor Regular Newslast_img read more