Fla. SC wants more manpower

Jessica M. Karmasek Feb. 17, 2011, 3:16pm

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (Legal Newsline) - The Florida Supreme Court says the state needs an additional 80 trial court judges -- 26 circuit court judges and 54 county court judges -- to handle the growing amount of court filings.

In an eight-page notification filed Thursday, the Court wrote, "The reality is that Florida's circuit and county judges are overloaded with new filings, have substantial caseloads and have fewer support staff to assist with the disposition of cases."

The Court, in its certification to state lawmakers, said it examined case filing and disposition data, analyzed various "judicial workload indicators," applied a "sustained net need analysis," and considered judgeship requests submitted by the lower courts.

Though needed, the state's high court also realizes it is unlikely it will get the funding for that many new judges.

"As we make this certification, we also are aware that difficulties in our economic situation continue to have a severe impact on both the private and public sectors in Florida," the Court wrote.

"With over one million Floridians unemployed and significant deficits in the state budget, we recognize that funding new judgeships will compete with other critical state priorities."

These "ongoing challenges" to state government, the Court said, already have resulted in considerable reductions in trial court funding.

"Trial court expense budgets and support staff have been significantly reduced," it wrote. "Judges are absorbing the work previously performed by magistrates, law clerks, case managers, and other supplemental support staff lost in the budget reductions of the last several years."

According to the Court, the system has lost a total of 249 trial court staff positions because of budget cuts.

"The loss of staff translates into slower case processing times, crowded dockets, and long waits to access judicial calendars," the Court wrote.

The Court also pointed to the increased number of pro se, or self-represented, filings. But given the economy, the number is not surprising, the Court said.

"Many citizens cannot afford to hire an attorney and choose to represent themselves in court," it wrote.

"Pro se litigants are often unprepared for the rigors of presenting evidence, following rules of procedure, and representing themselves in court. Cases involving pro se litigants frequently require enhanced judicial involvement which entails lengthier or rescheduled hearings, which can result in litigant frustration and court delay."

The Court also cited the ongoing mortgage foreclosure crisis.

"The attendant workload associated with the total volume of foreclosure filings far outweighs current judicial capacity, notwithstanding the additional senior judge and case manager resources provided by the Legislature to assist with this crisis," it wrote.

The Court commended the trial court judges for "doing more with less." Still, the justices said they were hopeful the situation can be improved.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by e-mail at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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