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Jax Daily Record Thursday, Apr. 12, 201212:00 PM EST

Bar leaders warn of cost cuts to courts

by: Joe Wilhelm Jr.

The presidents of the American Bar Association, The Florida Bar and The Jacksonville Bar Association called Wednesday for better funding of the court system, one of the three branches of government.

“The judiciary is not a department of the executive branch. It is not a line item that can be reduced or eliminated. It is one of three equal branches of government,” said William Robinson III, president of the American Bar Association.

Robinson, member in charge of the Frost Brown Todd LLC firm in Kentucky, spoke at The JBA Law Day Luncheon Wednesday at the Hyatt.

Robinson, Florida Bar President Scott Hawkins and The JBA President Michael Freed met with the Daily Record Wednesday morning before the event.

Armed with information regarding the lack of funding for court systems across the country, they discussed their efforts to inform the public about the problems the state and federal courts are experiencing.

The American Bar Association released information that Florida has the lowest judicial budget allotment at 0.7 percent. It is below Missouri at 0.8 percent and Georgia at 0.9 percent.

“People take courts for granted. They think they are like roads, that they are always going to be there,” said Hawkins, vice chair of the Jones, Foster, Johnston & Stubbs firm in West Palm Beach and board-certified in business litigation.

While local, state and federal governments are requiring departments to reduce spending and operate more efficiently in the face of reduced budgets, the judiciary cannot be treated the same way, the three argued.

Robinson attributed the public’s lack of recognition of the concept of government’s three equal executive, legislative and judicial branches.

“People are more able to name the judges for ‘American Idol’ than they are the justices of the Supreme Court because civic education is no longer a required part of the curriculum,” said Robinson.

They also discussed the economic impact of an underfunded court system, saying that slower resolutions of cases because of understaffing can affect civil, business and family cases.

Florida has fewer trial judges, on a per capita basis, than many other large states, according to the Florida Office of the State Courts Administrator.

In 2008, Florida ranked 46th in the ratio of citizens to judges. The 2008 statistics showed that the national average was 7.3 judges per 100,000 people and Florida had 4.5 judges per 100,000 people.

“The criminal cases are going to go through the system as required by law. It’s the business cases in civil court that are going to suffer as courts try to keep up with the caseload,” said Freed, managing partner of the Brennan, Manna & Diamond firm in Jacksonville.

His practice areas include business and corporate law, litigation and other areas.

They said the budget allotment also affects the salaries that can be offered to attract the best judges.

A January 2011 study by the Florida Chamber Foundation and The Washington Economics Group Inc. concluded that the annual wages of Florida’s trial judges are lower by nearly $16,000 than a 50-state model would predict.

In addition, Florida’s judges’ have repeatedly been passed over for basic cost-of-living increases and were subject to a pay cut in 2009.

“How can we attract the best lawyers to the bench, away from lucrative private practices, without a competitive wage?” said Robinson.

At the Law Day event, Financial News & Daily Record Publisher Jim Bailey presented Holland & Knight partner George Gabel the newspaper’s annual award as “Lawyer of the Year.”

The award recognizes the recipient’s “determined dedication, tireless efforts and continuous commitment to (their) community.”

The JBA presents the Liberty Bell Award annually to an individual or group that has promoted better understanding of the rule of law, encouraged greater respect for law and the courts, stimulated a sense of civic responsibility, or contributed to good government in the community.

The 2012 recipient was Daily Record Managing Editor Karen Brune Mathis.

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