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Cost-cutting may close courts
Workers may be sent home without pay. A judge calls it a "catastrophe."
By Jamal Thalji and Colleen Jenkins, Times Staff Writers
Published February 21, 2008
Judges across Florida say the state's budget crunch will shutter courthouses for weeks this spring as thousands of court employees are sent home without pay.
At risk, they say, is a halt to all civil litigation for those weeks, such as foreclosures and divorces. All that would be heard is priority family law cases and critical criminal proceedings.
"It's going to be a catastrophe," said Hillsborough County's Chief Judge Manuel Menendez.
But in Tallahassee, where lawmakers are faced with making even deeper cuts across state agencies in the coming year, sympathy is scarce. The court system had ample warning this was coming and should have planned accordingly, leaders say.
"If the money's not there, we can't spend it," Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, said Wednesday, a day after the chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court asked Crist's budget committee to intervene. "And it's not there."
It's Florida's worsening economy that is pitting the two branches of government against each other. The Legislature held a special budget-cutting session in October to cope with a drop in state revenue.
The state court system took a 2 percent hit then. But Gov. Charlie Crist also ordered state agencies to not spend 1 percent of their budget each quarter in case additional cuts were needed.
Sen. Crist, who is not related to the governor, said the judiciary was asked months ago to voluntarily hold back 4 percent of its budget "in case the money doesn't come in."
Now, it looks like it won't. A new revenue estimate next month is expected to show the state's tax collections are lower still than what was predicted in the fall.
The state Supreme Court estimates that to absorb a 4 percent cut or $16.9-million, circuit courts would need to send workers home for 22 days; county courts for 58 days.
In Pinellas and Pasco it would affect 244 employees; in Hillsborough that number would be 240. The number for Hernando County court employees wasn't available Wednesday.
"I'm pleading for the life of a branch of government," Chief Justice R. Fred Lewis of the Florida Supreme Court told senators Tuesday as the state's 20 chief judges flooded the Capitol for a day of lobbying. "In essence, you are destroying a branch of government."
But Sen. Crist said falling state revenue and the judiciary's "poor fiscal management" are to blame.
Crist said that his Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee tried to shield judges from the brunt of budget cuts and that judges were warned these cuts could be coming.
But Menendez said judges were led to believe that they would receive a significant chunk of that money back this spring and spent accordingly to cover salaries.
The chief of the Pinellas-Pasco circuit, Judge Robert Morris Jr., said the senator is mistaken about another aspect of those "holdbacks." Judges were warned to hold back on costs - not salaries.
Lewis told Crist's committee Tuesday that salaries make up 87 percent of the Florida judiciary's budget. So if the Legislature wants to cut the judicial budget in the last quarter of the fiscal year - April, May and June - then that's where the money is going to come from.
First, this caveat: Judges' salaries won't be affected. The cost of running court buildings is paid for by counties.
But judges say everyone who helps them do their jobs will be affected. That means judicial assistants, magistrates and mediators. That means no hearing officers to handle traffic court or child support hearings, no case managers to navigate family court, even the district courts of appeal will have to shut down.
"We're just people," Morris said.
That's not what Crist, a Tampa Republican, thinks. He said his staff calculated the judiciary can cut that out of the last quarter of this year's budget without furloughing anyone. The money can come from maintenance, operations and contracts, Crist said. His committee is expected to discuss the issue again in a meeting today.
The senator said the judges' threat to furlough state workers "is a ploy to create a groundswell to oppose the Legislature."
Everyone will have to sacrifice, warned State Senate President Ken Pruitt.
"I'd rather be furloughed one day a month and keep my job," said the Port St. Lucie Republican, "than have somebody who's my workmate lose their job."
But some jobs, the judges say, are too important to lose for even a day.
"They say the wheels of justice turn slowly," said Hernando Circuit Judge Daniel Merritt Sr., chief judge of the 5th Circuit. "This would bring it to a halt."
Times staff writers Steve Bousquet, Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler, John Frank and Jennifer Liberto contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6236.