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Florida Lawmakers: Judicial Branch's Budget Requests Will Be Top Priority In 2016

MGN Online

The state’s court system will be a top priority next year in Florida’s criminal justice budget. That’s what a group of Florida lawmakers have vowed to do.

This year, Florida’s troubled Department of Corrections got the largest agency share in this year’s criminal justice budget. And, the Senate’s Budget chief for Criminal Justice issues, Sen. Joe Negron (R-Stuart), said as much during this past special session.

“We focused primarily this session on the Department of Corrections,” said Negron. “My goal next session is to focus more on our court system, the public defenders, and state attorneys, which are also a very important part of our budget. And, I’ve said before, our court system is an independent, co-equal, third branch Government. It’s not another state agency. And, we should treat it as an equal partner with the Legislature and with the Governor in our constitutional system.”

One of the most talked about areas in the judicial branch is the need for 35 new judges: 32 county court judges and three new circuit court judges. It would have cost about ten million dollars, but that wasn’t put into this year’s budget.

“The Florida Supreme Court certified the need for three additional circuit judges, and 32 additional county court judges. What does this budget do to address what the Supreme Court said the judiciary needs,” questioned Rep. Darryl Rouson (D-St. Petersburg), during the special session.

House Criminal Justice Budget Chair, Rep. Larry Metz, says while they didn’t fund that, they did fund other priorities.

“As any other agency of government that comes before the legislature in the budget process, the court system does prioritize its budget requests,” Metz replied. “And, they’re Schedule 8a had the new judgeships at the very bottom of their list of priorities. This budget picks up a lot of their other priorities, however, such as the information technology and case management categories. So, we funded the priorities that the court gave us, with giving greater deference to their priorities. And, that mean that the judges didn’t get reached for funding this year.”

Rouson says he hopes that’s an area the state will look at next year. And, while he didn’t make an all-out promise, Metz says he will continue his working relationship with the judicial branch to consider their budget requests in the next fiscal year.

But, Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner (D-Tampa) says state lawmakers must do more than just consider these requests.

“What I would really like to see next year we find a way to give the judicial branch the respect that I feel it deserves as the third branch of government,” said Joyner. “Historically, I haven’t been pleased with how they have been treated, that branch has been treated…we’ve done some good, but not good enough.”

She says the judicial branch encompasses more than the courts—the prosecutors and the public defenders—who she says deserves adequate compensation.

“And, coming out of Law School and starting out in the $30,000s and maybe at $40,000 just doesn’t cut it,” she added. “And, we need to take a comprehensive look at how the judicial branch and all of its partners are funded, and next year, I’d like to ensure that is a goal of our committee because we are losing good lawyers on both sides—the prosecution and the defense—because they can’t afford to work for $40,000 a year and have to pay all those loans.”

And, Joyner says it was a process already started last year.

“This cannot continue,” she continued. “We’ve got to respect the branch, and I’d just like to put that on the agenda for next session, because we started last year with a pay equity to try and bring up the salaries and this year, we were unable to complete Part 2 of that compromise. That coalition…we had a coalition, believe it or not, with the state attorneys and the public defenders. First time in the history that they came together, realized there’s unity. Where there’s unity, there’s strength. And, what’s good for one is good for the other, and that’s having adequate revenues available to fund those people who work so hard for us.”

Still, lawmakers did fund other areas of the courts system, like more money for senior judges to help in foreclosure cases. It’s an issue important to several legislators, including Sen. Geraldine Thompson (D-Orlando).

“During the economic downturn, there was an initiative to allow senior judges to work on foreclosure cases that were clogging up the court dockets, and because the sitting judges had responsibility for speedy trial, etc., the foreclosures were presenting a major issue,” said Thompson.

Initially lawmakers sought to give about $200,000 to that initiative. But, Senate Criminal Justice Budget Chief Negron says both chambers agreed to increase that amount to $750,000.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.