Protect state courts from budget cuts

A Times Editorial
Published February 29, 2008

Florida's courts may soon sport this sign: Temporarily Closed Due to Budget Cuts. Lawmakers have told the state judiciary that it should expect to absorb a $16.9-million cut - 4 percent - for the remaining months of this fiscal year. The hit comes on top of a 2 percent cut that the state court system was ordered to make after an earlier round of reductions last fall because declining tax revenues.

This body blow has the state judiciary reeling. With salaries and staff-related expenses constituting close to 80 percent of the state courts' budget, there is simply no way to make these cuts under current budget rules without affecting personnel and court operations. To meet the 4 percent target, a furlough schedule has been established that would essentially shutter most courthouse services for weeks.

In Florida's District Courts of Appeal, all staff would be furloughed for 13 days; in the circuit courts the temporary layoff would be 22 days; and in the county courts staff would face 58 days without pay. Because the salaries of judges and justices are fixed by state law, they would not be affected by the forced layoffs.

What would this look like? It would be ugly. While criminal proceedings would be a priority, most civil cases would grind to a halt. The kinds of issues that everyday people routinely turn to for the court system to resolve - getting a divorce, making changes in child custody, suing a contractor over a disputed bill - would be delayed. Magistrates who handle a large share of traffic court cases would be furloughed, so traffic court would shut down.

The court system is a coequal branch of government, and there is no justification for making budget cuts that would make it impossible to carry out its duties. Rather than subjecting the courts to an across-the-board 4 percent cut facing the other branches of government, lawmakers need to be doing the politically difficult work of holding core state functions harmless and cutting more deeply elsewhere.

Lawmakers argue that the judiciary was warned early on that this 4 percent holdback would not be returned if revenues fell short. But things weren't so cut and dried. There was an expectation that much of that money would become available later in the fiscal year. And when the budget is almost entirely made up of staffing costs, there isn't flexibility to hold back money in a wait-and-see mode. Either employees are paid or they are not.

At the very least, lawmakers should free the courts for the remaining months of the fiscal year to pay for salaries out of pots of money designated for other purposes. Now the courts are barred from using money earmarked for operating expenses to pay for salaries, says Judge Robert Morris, chief judge of the Pinellas-Pasco circuit. He says there is money sitting in a due process trust account that could be used for salaries, but he is constrained from using it without legislative approval.

That is not the best solution, since not every circuit is as well situated. The right course would be for lawmakers to look somewhere other than the state court system for an extra $16.9-million.