State wants court clerks’ funding lawsuit dismissed

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The state of Florida is asking a judge to toss out a lawsuit over funding of the state’s court clerks.

The Department of Revenue, the Department of Financial Services and the Joint Legislative Budget Commission last month filed a motion to dismiss against Broward County Clerk of Court Howard Forman, according to court dockets.

Forman wants 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. He filed suit in May.

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.

Records show the state’s clerks collectively take in more than $1 billion yearly in filing fees and other court costs but get back less than half of that for operations, even as Florida has largely rebounded from the Great Recession.

First, the state defendants say elected officeholders like Forman don’t have the legal standing to file constitutional challenges.

He had filed a notice with Attorney General Pam Bondi that his funding suit was a “constitutional challenge to state statutes” having to do with budgeting and filing fees.

The motion also says the budgeting process was OK’d under a previous challenge in 2010, and added there’s no constitutional requirement that any particular amount of money from fees has to go back to the clerks.

Forman, a Democrat and former state senator, filed on behalf of himself. The statewide Florida Clerks & Comptrollers association is not a party to the suit.

The case may be Forman’s swan song: After first being elected to the post in 2000, he is retiring at the end of the year.

His lawsuit says the 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.

Court dockets show Circuit Judge James Hankinson has not yet scheduled a hearing in the case.

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.