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When cuts hurt trial courts, we all feel pain

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By HOWARD TROXLER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 18, 2003

Florida's trial courts, overall, do a pretty good job.

I'm not talking about whether our laws should be different. Maybe you think we have too many lawsuits. Maybe you oppose the death penalty. Maybe your own court case turned out badly. Maybe you think the state Supreme Court is too liberal.

That is all fair game for criticism. I'm talking about what's happening down in the trenches. Florida's trial courts get more done with less than just about any state court system in the nation, despite having one of the heaviest per-judge caseloads.

Even as Tallahassee refuses to help (new judges for next year: 0), Florida's local trial courts have been innovative. The advent of drug courts, teen courts, mediation programs and other specialized measures have speeded up case handling and improved case results.

A lot of the credit for these innovations belongs to Florida's counties and local taxpayers, not the state Legislature. More and more, state judges have pitched their ideas for new programs to their county commissions. More and more, the locals paid for what the state wouldn't. (If you lived in a poor county, well, tough luck. No good stuff for you.)

This year, the state is paying $232-million for Florida's courts, but the counties are kicking in another $190-million on top of that.

Do you sense a "but" coming?

The "but" is that this era is going to come to an end. As of July 1, 2004, the state is supposed to take over the funding of most of what the locals are paying for now. But instead of promising to continue the innovations, the Legislature is talking budget cuts, layoffs and by implication, the killing of programs.

Back in 1998, the idea was that by amending the state Constitution, we would force the Legislature to shoulder its rightful burden. Since then, of course, we have seen that it is one thing to amend the Constitution, and another thing to force the Legislature to obey.

In the current session of the Legislature, the assault on the court system is twofold.

First, the Legislature is setting the ground rules for next year's takeover, and has omitted -- at least in the House's version -- some critical aspects of the modern court system. Most painful to Florida's judges is the total elimination of case managers, who work with litigants, especially those without lawyers, to move cases along.

Secondly, and more immediate, both the Senate and House's versions of next year's court budget contain less money than this year, despite higher caseloads.

"The budgets now pending in the Legislature cut muscle and bone throughout the state court system," writes Harry Lee Anstead, chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court, in an extraordinary appeal to every member of the Florida Bar.

Although the numbers are changing rapidly, estimates of the Senate's cut range from $9-million to $11-million, and in the House $13-million or higher.

"There's a definite chance the drug courts would have to be eliminated," sighs Pasco-Pinellas Circuit Judge Susan Schaeffer, the head of a state trial-court budget commission. Although the Senate keeps drug courts as a state-funded program, the House in essence keeps them as a local option, she said. That's exactly the kind of buck-passing to the locals that the 1998 amendment tried to end.

What is going on here, especially on the House side, is more than just penny-wise, pound-foolishness. The House in particular has an ideological hostility toward lawyers, lawsuits and appeals courts. Fair enough -- but unfortunately, that hostility has spilled over into a general attack on a trial court system that everyday Floridians need.

(The other day, one House member even offered an amendment that said that spectactors in Florida courtrooms shouldn't have to stand up when the judge comes in. No joke. The idea was withdrawn, but it shows the mindset at work here.)

Yet we need trial courts. We need courts to prosecute crimes. We need courts to settle civil disputes and divorces and many other things. If we try to choke off the trial court system, the need will not go away; it will only rebound against us in the form of frustration and delay. Is this really what Floridians want?

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