Justice: Plan will cripple courts
By ALISA ULFERTS, Times Staff Writer
TALLAHASSEE -- Florida House members are using a 1998 constitutional amendment intended to force the state to pay for court costs as a means to dismantle the state court system, Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Harry Lee Anstead said Friday.
House legislation needed to carry out the amendment goes far beyond implementation and restructures a system copied by other states, Anstead said.
At particular risk: Florida's acclaimed drug court and mediation programs.
"I'm scared to death. I have never seen our court system more at risk," Anstead said. "As head of this branch I feel obligated to speak out when it's in danger."
When he talks to House members about his concerns, he said, "All I get is blank stares."
House Speaker Johnnie Byrd said Anstead's angst was understandable but unnecessary.
"I belive at the end of the day the House members want to have a high quality court system," Byrd said. "I guess I just need to go have coffee with the chief justice more often." The House has not yet approved its court plan.
The relationship between the state courts and the Republican-led House has become increasingly strained in the past few years. The Supreme Court has tossed out some Republican initiatives, such as a constitutional amendment to hasten death penalty appeals. And it angered Republicans during the disputed 2000 presidential election when it ruled in favor of Democratic hopeful Al Gore and a statewide ballot recount. That decision was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Even Gov. Jeb Bush spent significant time during his re-election campaign decrying state judges who, he said, usurp lawmakers' policy-making duties.
Anstead did not describe the House legislation as political payback, but said the plan -- combined with proposed deep, "smart-bomb" budget cuts aimed at critical court programs -- convinced him to launch an all-out lobbying effort with the state's judges and lawyers. He's written an open letter to all Florida lawyers, urging them to contact lawmakers. He's written newspaper opinion pieces to defend the court system.
But he says it's harder to generate as much public outrage over court cuts as those in social services.
The Legislature must approve a plan to transfer court costs to the state during the current legislative session so it can budget the additional costs next year in time for the July 1, 2004 deadline.
The Senate plan, led by Sen. Rod Smith, D-Alachua, and Sen. Alex Villalobos, R-Miami, sticks closely to the recommendations offered by the Trial Court Budget Commission, led by Circuit Judge Susan F. Schaeffer of the Pinellas-Pasco circuit.
But Anstead said the House plan, led by Pensacola Republican Rep. Holly Benson, would eliminate state funding for court case management, dismantle the state's drug court system, raise the $15,000 county civil court limit to $30,000 and make it harder for poor defendants to get a new lawyer when the public defender's office has a conflict of interest.
It also would require counties to reimburse the state when a state judge presides over some optional court programs such as drug court or mediation.
"If reimbursement is required, the (House) Select Committee should understand that this will likely eliminate drug courts from the state of Florida," Schaeffer wrote to Benson.
Schaeffer also predicted that new trials would be granted to defendants in cases where the judge refused to recuse a public defender who "has not taken all reasonable measures to prevent a conflict," as required in the House plan.
Benson said the plan was still evolving and that Anstead was reacting to an preliminary outline. Her committee will discuss the actual bill next week, Benson said.
Anstead said Bush, a supporter of drug court, has been "supportive in a passive way."
A Bush spokeswoman said the governor would review the court plan when the Legislature passed one.
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From the Times state desk
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