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Jax Daily Record Thursday, Mar. 26, 200912:00 PM EST

Court system braces as governor holds onto funding

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by: Joe Wilhelm Jr.

by Joe Wilhelm Jr.

Staff Writer

The local court system is on the edge of its seat watching and waiting to see what the result will be from Governor Charlie Crist’s decision to hold back 15 percent of state spending for the next three months.

Public Defender Matt Shirk is preparing for the worst, and has notified his staff to be prepared for a 16-day “furlough” to help balance his office’s budget if the withholding transfers from temporary to permanent.

“The shutdown will be unavoidable if the 15 percent holdback becomes permanent,” said Shirk. “We have cut salaries. We are 10 positions down from where we were Jan. 6. We can’t do much else.”

Shirk notified the court system in a letter dated March 23 that the Public Defender’s Office may have to close from June 15-30. June 30 is the end of his office’s fiscal year. Shirk’s plan was laid out in a letter to Chief Circuit Court Judge Don Moran as follows:

• The office will be closed from June 15-30. All employees will be on furlough beginning the close of business on Friday June 12, 2009 and return to work on Wednesday July 1, 2009.

• All jury and non-jury trials will need to be continued until after July 1, 2009. I (Shirk) would ask that all cases set for trial during this time period be continued for 30 days, to accommodate time for preparation.

• Any cases with pretrials, hearings or other matters will need to be administratively passed to dates after July 1, 2009. I suspect this number will be minimal, as all attorneys have been instructed to prepare for furloughs and not set any matters during that period of time.

• This office will not have the ability to staff any courtroom, including J-1, between June 15 and June 30, 2009. We are still considering the impact this will have on new appointments, and the legal ramifications to our clients, including whether this office will have the ability to take them.

This plan would close the Public Defender’s Office and no one would be available for representation of clients during this time.

“That’s what we are really concerned about,” said Shirk. “The service to the clients we are serving and those who may need our help during that time. I am very concerned.”

That concern is not unfounded. There were 57,528 arrests made in Duval County in 2007 according to the Uniform Crime Reports compiled by the Florida Statistical Analysis Center. That number breaks down to an average of 153 arrests a day. Using those figures, if half the people arrested over a 16-day period requested a public defender, more than 1,000 people would be looking elsewhere for representation.

The State Attorney’s Office has been in contact with the governor’s office through the Florida Prosecuting Attorney’s Association with requests to release the funding to avoid any break in service.

“The danger here is this, the courts have not been touched,” said State Attorney Angela Corey. “Criminal courtrooms cannot function without the State Attorney’s Office and the Public Defender’s Office. And because the Public Defender’s Office represents a significant portion of the cases we have pending, the criminal justice system would literally grind to a halt.”

Corey believes it would be costly to the taxpayers if her office would have to operate while the Public Defender’s Office remained closed.

“We would be able to function, but the cost would be so much greater to the taxpayer,” Corey said. “If ever an adage was true, the old adage of justice delayed is justice denied would be a perfect description of this.”

The local court was notified of the possibility of the state holding back funding and has taken steps to make sure the courthouse doors stay open. It remains in constant contact with agencies involved in the Court’s financial process and it is taking a wait-and-see approach to the current legislative session.

“We lost close to 17 people during the last round of budget cuts. We’ve been told to be prepared for more and we are prepared for that,” said Court Administrator Joe Stelma. “We are constantly in touch with the Florida Supreme Court’s Office of State Court Administrators. There are still a lot of issues the State Legislature and the governor are handling. We are continuing legal business as usual until we hear further word.”

The Public Defender isn’t as sure in the future of the State funding.

“Again, this represents the best-case scenario should the 15 percent holdback become permanent. Of course, if the holdback is released, there will be little or no impact on our office,” said Shirk in the letter to Moran. “I am very concerned about how the furloughs will impact our justice system, particularly our clients and the Jacksonville community, not to mention the serious financial burden on the employees of this office.”

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