Broward court clerk suing state over funding

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Broward County’s clerk of court is suing the state over the way it funds Florida’s clerks.

Howard Forman is asking a Leon County circuit judge to declare “funding of the offices of the clerks of the circuit and county courts performing court-related functions” as unconstitutional, says his lawsuit filed this month.

His complaint is against the state’s Department of Revenue, the Department of Financial Services and the Joint Legislative Budget Commission.

The basic gripe: You’re taking our money.

Florida’s court clerks have long complained about what they consider underfunding by the state. They have responded by shrinking staff and reducing their office hours.

The state’s clerks collectively take in more than $1 billion yearly but get back less than half of that for operations, records show, even as Florida rebounded from the Great Recession.

An audit released earlier this year found Florida court clerks “struggl(e) with increased workloads, declining revenue and need increased state funding to keep up.”

Forman also filed a notice with Attorney General Pam Bondi of his “constitutional challenge to state statutes.” He couldn’t be immediately reached Tuesday morning.

Forman filed on behalf of himself, but a memo summarizing his suit was sent Friday to Brent Thurmond, president of the Florida Clerks & Comptrollers, a statewide association.

The memo’s author, association General Counsel Fred Baggett, did not take or recommend a position on the suit. Thurmond, the clerk of court for Wakulla County, wasn’t in the office Tuesday morning.

“This is a lawsuit filed by the Clerk from Broward County, on behalf of his individual office,” said Sarah Bascom, spokesperson for the Florida Court Clerks & Comptrollers. “The association is not party to this lawsuit.”

The lawsuit says the named defendants are wrongly allowing filing fees collected by the clerks to be diverted into general revenue and various trust funds “for purposes other than for funding of the offices of the clerks.”

The suit explains that every year the Clerks of Court Operations Corp. “is required to submit to the (Legislative Budget Commission) a proposed budget for each of the 67 clerks of court.”

The LBC, as it’s known, is made up of members of both legislative chambers. It “approves, disapproves, or amends” all clerk funding.

But that process is unconstitutional because it bypasses “approval by the full legislature,” Forman’s suit says.

“In establishing the budget of the clerks of courts, including the budget of the Broward Clerk of Court, the LBC is not making limited adjustments to the budget,” the suit says. “It is actually establishing the budget … without the concurrence of the full legislature contrary to … the State Constitution.”

Furthermore, the “budget reductions to the Office of the Broward County Clerk of Courts in FY 2015-16 amounted to approximately $2 million,” his suit says.

“As a result, the Broward Clerk of Courts eliminated 16 positions, did not fill approximately 25 positions, and furloughed employees one day a month beginning in June 2015,” it added. “Because of employment management strategies, furloughs were eliminated in February 2016, although the hours the Clerk’s offices are open to the public were reduced.”

State Rep. Richard Corcoran, the Land O’ Lakes Republican slated to be the next House Speaker, is the LBC’s co-chair. He could not be reached Tuesday.

Forman is represented by Tallahassee attorney Mark Herron of the Messer Caparello law firm.

Before joining Florida Politics, journalist and attorney James Rosica was state government reporter for The Tampa Tribune. He attended journalism school in Washington, D.C., working at dailies and weekly papers in Philadelphia after graduation. Rosica joined the Tallahassee Democrat in 1997, later moving to the courts beat, where he reported on the 2000 presidential recount. In 2005, Rosica left journalism to attend law school in Philadelphia, afterwards working part time for a public-interest law firm. Returning to writing, he covered three legislative sessions in Tallahassee for The Associated Press, before joining the Tribune’s re-opened Tallahassee bureau in 2013. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.