More push-pull legislation on court funding

Readers may recall the Florida House bills proposed several weeks ago that would provide the courts guaranteed funding, but only if judicial immunity and a list of other changes made to the way courts and judges operate. Now the Senate has introduced identical bills (SB 2636 and SB 2640).

Georgia, meanwhile, is also considering tying additional funding to changes in court structure. SB 429 would add a $100 judicial operations fund fee to all civil actions with the proceeds to be deposited into the general fund of the state treasury for funding salaries of judges and the operational needs of the judicial system. This additional funding comes, however, only if the Supreme Court is increased from 7 to 9 justices and the Court of Appeals from 12 to 15. Unlike in most states where a change to the number of Supreme Court justices would require a constitutional amendment,Article VI Section VI of Georgia’s Constitution allows the legislature to set the number so long as it is below 9 (interestingly, there appears to be no minimum). Gavel to Gavel readers may recall a similar effort to expand the Supreme Court in 2007. This, from Gavel to Gavel’s first edition

Georgia media reports legislation may be considered to increase from 7 to 9 the number of seats on that state’s high court. Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears urged lawmakers not to alter the court, telling them “We are doing well. We are getting it done. We have the manpower we need.”

Changes to the appellate courts are rare, especially courts of last resort. Since 1990, only 2 states have had such changes. Nevada’s Supreme Court grew from 5 to 7 members in 1999 (AB 343 of 1997). In that same year, Iowa’s Supreme Court shrank from 9 to 7 as 3 judges were added to the state’s Court of Appeals (HF 2471 of 1998).

FL: Courts and foreclosures

Gavel to Gavel: The Blog is designed to be more expansive, in terms of both content and contributors, than the original e-publication. Writers will be key contributors on the front lines of legislation and the courts.

This week marks the first such contribution from Cristina Alonso, an attorney with Carlton Fields and co-chair of the NCSC Young Lawyers committee.

Florida’s legislature is not yet in session, but already has several bills to contend with foreclosures and the courts. SB 1778 and HB 75 provide procedural requirements and limitations for plaintiffs, defendants, and courts in certain foreclosure actions, including a requirement for court-ordered mediation. The bills would require that the Florida Supreme Court create “the form and content notices, affidavits, certificates, liens, and other forms required” and require Circuit Clerks to “provide all forms, together with instructions in English and Spanish, to a pro se defendant seeking assistance in any foreclosure action. Such forms shall be provided at no cost to the defendant.”  Both bills are currently pending in various committees of both chambers.

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.