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Justices Want More Judges, Legislature Balks

No self-respecting conservative makes it to Tallahassee without promising to crack down on crime. But that commitment to law and order often stops at the courthouse door.

In December, the Florida Supreme Court “certified” the need for 35 new trial judges. They shouldn’t hold their breath. The Legislature hasn’t created a new trial judge slot in eight years.

So far, House and Senate spending plans continue the tradition. But the session’s only half over, assures Representative Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, a Tallahassee Democrat and member of the Judiciary Committee.

“Very often, some of these positions and things get funded later on.”

Republican leaders say the same thing. Here’s Senate President Andy Gardiner of Orlando:

“We have some time lines we need to meet and without resolution on these issues, we start getting into some real time crunches.”

And House Speaker Steve Crisafulli of Merritt Island agrees.

“Well, we’ve got a long way to go, we’re at the half way mark and still a lot of negotiations take place and we intend to continue to have those conversations.”

Spending on Florida’s court system is less than 1 percent of the state’s nearly $80 billion budget. In 2007, the courts budget was 491 million dollars. This year, it’s 48 million dollars less.

Vasilinda says lawmakers ARE considering a familiar holding action, luring retired judges back on the bench.

“I know that there was a tweak that was done to the retirement situation for retired judges to allow them to come back without penalty to them a little bit earlier in the process.”

Republican Senator Joe Negron of Stuart is an attorney and chairs a judicial spending committee. He’s frustrated. His higher ups are directing his focus elsewhere.

“I don’t plan to do this again next year, where the entire focus and all the new money is on the Department of Corrections.”

Negron says he appreciates the Supreme Court’s dilemma.

“Courts are co-equal branch of government. They deserve attention, they deserve respect, they deserve funding.”

Justices will have to wait. There won’t be a final resolution for another four weeks.

A Miami native, former WFSU reporter Jim Ash is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience, most of it in print. He has been a member of the Florida Capital Press Corps since 1992.