Florida Court System Faces Funding Crisis

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While Florida wrestles with a $3.8 billion budget shortfall, the state courts are facing an immediate funding crisis. The courts are largely funded by filing fees, especially foreclosure filings — which have slowed to a trickle because of extra scrutiny by lenders worried about allegations of falsified documents. The state Supreme Court chief justice has said he needs $72 million to avoid furloughs and serious delays in litigation. Gov. Rick Scott made some emergency funds available but says he wants to study the issue.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is Greg Allen in Miami.

Joel Brown, the chief judge of Florida's 11th Judicial Circuit in Miami-Dade County, has a question.

Judge JOEL BROWN (Chief Judge, 11th Judicial Circuit, Florida): Would you go into an operating room with just a surgeon? No operating room tech, no nurses. That's what we're looking at.

ALLEN: Brown isn't talking not about the cuts planned to publicly-funded health care in Florida. That's a story for a different day. Brown's talking about Florida's courts, which are in a budget crisis one that could require employee furloughs and fewer support personnel for already overworked judges. The problem, says Judge Brown, is that the courts are funded through filing fees, and in recent years most of those filing fees have come from foreclosures, which have temporarily slowed down in Florida.

Judge BROWN: Because the foreclosure filings have stopped, because of what has gone on in that industry, the filing fees have substantially been reduced.

ALLEN: Brown's talking about the robo-signers and allegations of fraud surrounding documents in foreclosures that have slowed new filings in Florida to a trickle. From Pensacola to Miami, Florida's courts are running out of cash.

Florida's Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady recently appealed to the legislature and to Governor Rick Scott for help. Canady asked them to approve a plan to cover a $72 million budget shortfall projected for the state courts between now and June 30. Without the money, Canady says, court functions across the state will be disrupted.

Judge CHARLES CANADY (Chief Justice, Florida Supreme Court): The criminal cases would have to receive priority, so the civil cases would be subjected to the disruption. And that would be very bad for our economy and bad for the citizens of Florida.

ALLEN: Governor Scott has agreed to make money available to carry the courts through April, but says he wants to study the issue before making a decision on additional funding. Scott has already said he thinks the courts can save more money. He's proposed cutting some $40 million - nearly 10 percent - from the judiciary in the upcoming budget. It's a plan that would cut some 600 positions from court personnel, including many judges' assistants.

Chief Judge in the 11th Circuit Joel Brown says the proposed cuts raise a basic question about the intent of the governor and the legislature.

Judge BROWN: It's a question of willingness, frankly, to fund an independent third branch of government - fully.

ALLEN: There may also be a question of competing branches of government. Florida's Supreme Court has clashed with the Republican-led legislature in the past. Along with the funding question, the legislature is also looking at a proposal to restructure the judiciary, including the Supreme Court.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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