Supreme Court: With less support staff, courts need more judges

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Florida needs 71 new judges, 23 in circuit court and 48 on the county court bench, and should add a judge to the 2nd District Court of Appeal, the Florida Supreme Court said Thursday, reports David Royse of the News Service of Florida.

The primary reasons are an expected increase in foreclosure filings, and already-backlogged courts due in part to the loss of support staff, which have been cut in the face of the economic downturn and a drop off in court funding from filing fees in recent months.

“We submit this certification recognizing the economic difficulties that continue to affect both the private sector and the public sector in Florida,” a unanimous court wrote in its annual report on the need for new judges. “Further, we acknowledge that state general revenues remain low, thereby creating competition between funding new judgeships and other critical state needs.”

Currently, there are 599 circuit judges in Florida and 322 county judges, in addition to the 61 district appeals court judges and the seven Supreme Court justices.

The need for new judges is despite a drop in felony filings and civil cases. But the drop in civil cases is mainly because of a voluntary moratorium on residential mortgage foreclosures that is expected to end soon and again clog courts with the cases.

Lower court judges told the Supreme Court that several circuits continue to have low clearance rates, high numbers of jury trials, requirements for additional hearings in certain types of cases, among other factors.

But one of the biggest problems in clearing cases is a lack of support staff, which have been cut as both filing fees and state tax dollars have declined.

“Our judges continue to absorb the work previously performed by magistrates, law clerks, case managers, and other supplemental support staff lost in the budget reductions of the last several years,” the court wrote. “Most of these positions provided direct case management, legal research, and adjudicatory support to our judges. Chief judges have advised us that the loss of support staff translates into slower case processing times, crowded dockets, and long waits to access judicial calendars.

“Restoration of case processing support staff lost in the budget reductions over the last three years remains a priority for the judicial branch,” the court said.

“In some jurisdictions, dockets are so full that it takes several weeks to schedule a hearing,” the court continued. “Similarly, lengthy jury trials must be scheduled months in advance

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.