Florida’s Push-Pull Legislation

The budget crises in the United States are a, if not the, central focus for all state judiciaries in this legislative session. Over the years, there have been several suggested solutions to address the problem of how to fund the third branch. The Conference of Chief Justices, for example, passed a resolution in 1973, amid the mid-1970s recession, that  “This conference supports the financing of [the courts] by an automatic  constitutional appropriation of a percentage of the General Fund Budget of each state.” (73-A-2)

Into this comes Florida’s HB 735 and HB 737.

HB 737 creates a Fiscal Stability Trust Fund to be administered by the Supreme Court and into which would be placed an automatic, guaranteed 1 percent of the state’s General Revenue Fund. The bill also declares “the judicial branch of state government shall be held harmless in years of fiscal deficits in the state as a matter of public safety” and permits revenues in the Fiscal Stability Trust Fund to remain in the fund at the end of every fiscal year.

HB 737 requires passage of HB 735  “or similar legislation”. HB 735 requires a retroactive  elimination of judicial immunity in a variety of specified contexts dealing with court proceedings.  Additionally, it expands the Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC) and requires JQC investigation panels include at least 5 “common citizen electors” as a staff committee, none of whom may be “officers of the court” and who must prepare a separate report on the investigation that is to be made publicly available. Both the state courts system in general, and the JQC in particular, would be subject to an immediate audit by the state’s Auditor General and the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability conduct full audit review of commission, a review to be repeated every two years.

Additionally, HB 735 requires the Supreme Court create a plan “promoting civics for residents of this state, together with education concerning the judicial branch in order to develop trust and confidence in the state’s judicial system.” It also creates unified family courts, teen courts, drug courts and mental health courts in each judicial circuit.

The Florida legislature is due to come into full session March 2.

Vermont: Restructuring an entire state’s judiciary

For nearly a century, the states have debated whether and to what extent their state court systems should be unified. Even the word itself has been the subject of ontological discourse (“What does “unified” mean, anyway?) As the ongoing budget crises force courts to review the way in which they deliver their core services, unification (however defined) is once again being submitted as a possible solution.

HB 470 comes out of the recommendations of the state’s Commission on Judicial Operation which has said on its website that “Vermonters can no longer afford the inefficiencies of our outdated court system. ” The Commission itself was created at the request of the legislature to “reduce the judiciary’s budget and enhance the efficient and effective delivery of judicial services.”

The bill would consolidate judicial functions by eliminating the Probate, Family, and District Courts (click here for current court structure chart, courtesy of the NCSC Court Statistics Project) and “establish[ing] a unified court system under the administrative control of the Supreme Court.” This unified system would consist of the Supreme Court and Superior Court, the later to absorb the Probate, Family and District Courts. This new Superior Court would have four divisions: civil, criminal, family, and probate, which would have the same subject matter jurisdiction currently had by the current Superior, District, Family, and Probate courts. Additionally, the state’s probate and judicial districts would be redrawn with districts no longer drawn along county lines. Moreover, all judges of the new Superior Court would be required to be attorneys, a qualification currently not mandatory for Probate Court judges. Finally, the state’s “assistant judges” (non-attorneys who may serve as “side judges” on cases) would not longer be allowed  any judicial, adjudicative functions.

It remains to be seen whether this legislation will advance, and if so how far, before the legislature adjourns sometime in late April.

Coming Up: Week of February 1, 2010

Session Starts
Oklahoma – February 1
Connecticut – February 3
Minnesota – February 4

Hearings/Committee Activity

Nebraska LB 727 Permits retired judge who agrees to serve a minimum number of temporary duty days per year as set by the Supreme Court may receive a stipend. In Senate Committee on Judiciary.

Maryland SB 119 (Constitutional Amendment) Increasing minimum amount of civil suit entitled to jury trial from $10,000 to $20,000. In Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.

Judicial Councils

Judicial Councils vary from state to state, ranging from advisory bodies to formal policy makers and setters. Three states are wrestling with the possibility of eliminating these bodies.

Virginia’s HB 240 would eliminate the Council and transfer its responsibilities to the Supreme Court or the Executive Secretary of the Supreme Court (the official title for the state court administrator).

New Hampshire, on the other hand, is seeking to save its Judicial Council. In 2009, the state’s legislature passed as part of its appropriations bill a provision (144:87) automatically ending “all non-regulatory boards, commissions, councils, advisory committees, and task forces in state government created by statute or administrative rule” on June 30, 2011 unless new authorizing legislation was approved. HB 1689 would keep the Judicial Council in operation.

Tennessee’s Judicial Council is facing a similar automatic sunset. Statutorily, the Council expired June 30, 2009 and is currently in its one-year “wind down” phase. HB 1016 and SB 374 would extend it until June 2017 while HB 1102 and SB 373 would grant it only until June 2010. HB 1102 was approved on a 90-5 vote on June 3, 2009 while the Senate version was deferred until 2010.

Mississippi Judicial Selection: Which way will it go?

Mississippi has seven different types of courts. Five of these use nonpartisan elections (Supreme, Appeal, Circuit, Chancery, County), one uses a straight appointment (Municipal) and one continues to use partisan elections (Justice). Currently, the state’s legislature is considering several bills that take entirely different courses of action for these judicial races.

HB 304 and HB 409 would change Justice Court races, along with those for chancery clerk, circuit clerk,  and all other county offices, into nonpartisan races.

HB 460 and HB 494 on the other hand would convert all nonpartisan judicial elections into partisan ones.

Meanwhile, HCR 22 would change the Supreme Court into a modified appointment system. Under the constitutional amendment, justices would be nominated by the Governor and confirmed by the Senate. After serving their full term, they would be subject to a yes/no retention election.

It remains to be seen what changes, if any, the legislature opts to make.