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- 2012 - April - 30th -

Clerks say expect delays in civil cases

by Gary Blankenship, The Florida Bar News

Delays in civil and probate cases will be the most likely result of budget cuts made by the Legislature on court clerks for the 2012-13 fiscal year and the courts may find it hard to attack a backlog in mortgage foreclosure cases despite extra funding from lawmakers.

Officials from the Florida Association of Court Clerks recently met with members of the Supreme Court’s Trial Court Budget Commission and the Office of the State Courts Administrator to discuss the impact of a $30 million budget cut for clerks.

The reduction was put into the budget in the closing days of the session.

Clerks have said it could mean as many as 900 layoffs around the state and will result in less support for the courts.

Sarasota Clerk of Court Karen Rushing, president of Florida Association of Court Clerks, said statewide it takes 16.64 million hours of labor for clerks to manage their court-related functions.

The $30 million budget cut will translate into a loss of 1.8 million hours, or more than 10 percent.

“The model (used to make that projection) is not overstating the problem,” Rushing said. “If anything, it’s understating it.”

Because of speedy trial, due process, and other requirements for criminal cases, and statutory mandates for domestic violence and other types of cases, clerks cannot cut support services there.

“That means that 37 percent of the work has to take the whole 1.8 million (hours) reduction,” Rushing said. “That means the filing of civil cases and probate cases has to take the whole hit. That’s what we went over with them (court officials).”

She said the projections by clerks were not unexpected by court officials.

Clerks are working to make the work reductions as uniform as possible, but Rushing said there could be some variations from county to county or circuit to circuit. Some clerks may choose to work shorter days, while other may close for a day each week. Still others could furlough employees.

Rushing said the clerks association will be meeting with chief circuit judges, at the request of court officials, to talk about the cutbacks, and the association is continuing to refine plans for next year.

She said the $30 million cutback will overwhelm the extra $2 million the Legislature gave clerks to focus on about 368,000 backlogged foreclosure cases (the courts received $4 million).

“You’ve got to have people to do it,” Rushing said of the foreclosure work. “The other things can’t get behind; that’s the issue.”

She also said court users may see services slow down even before the July 1 start of the new budget year. That’s because clerks may be reluctant to fill any new job vacancies when they would then have to fire that new employee to comply with the budget cuts.

State Courts Administrator Lisa Goodner, who participated in the meeting with the clerks, said court officials are sympathetic to the clerks’ plight.

“We are interdependent, and our mutual success depends on adequate funding for both entities,” she said. “You have to figure out what it is you are required by statute or constitution to do within given timeframes and devote your resources to those things. Those things that are more discretionary … those are the ones you take resources from.

“This … is going to result in delay in the processing of certain types of cases, which is of much concern to us. We are certainly working with them to understand what the problems are and trying to understand so the chief judges and clerks locally can work through the problems.”

Before the session, the courts and clerks cooperated on a joint, legislatively ordered study, which designated both as core functions of the third branch and recommended a funding plan for both. Lawmakers did not follow that plan, although they did meet its goal of not cutting court funding.

On foreclosures, Goodner said the courts are looking at how to use their $4 million appropriation to reduce the backlog while recognizing the clerks will have trouble devoting more resources.

Rushing noted that handling foreclosures already in the system won’t take that much of the clerks’ time — until they are completed and a property ordered sold — because much of the clerks’ work is done when a case is filed.

For now, foreclosures are a double-edged sword for the courts. On the one hand, the more cases filed means more work for clerks and courts. On the other hand, until the new budget year — when about 75 percent of the court system’s budget will come from state general revenues — the courts remain heavily reliant on filing fees, particularly from foreclosures.

“I think they (foreclosure filings) are beginning to pick up. We are hoping they are, because things are running really tight for the last quarter (of the 2011-12 fiscal year),” Goodner said.

“We are still so totally dependent on fees, we’ve had to put spending restrictions in place for the fourth quarter,” Goodner said.

“The good news is we won’t have this problem next year.”

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