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Senate sends measure giving governor control over JNCs back to the House

Wednesday, March 7th, 2012 by Dara Kam

The Senate grudgingly approved a measure giving future governors the ability to wipe out a majority of members on panels who help select judges, including Supreme Court judges, and sent it to the House for approval.

The proposal (HB 971) is a compromise with Gov. Rick Scott, who wanted to be able to wipe clean the entire judicial nominating commissions, nine-member panels made up of five gubernatorial appointees and four selected by the Florida Bar.

The House version of the measure would allow Scott to remove effectively fire JNC members picked by his successor Charlie Crist. But the Senate rejected that plan, allowing only members appointed after Scott took office to be affected.

Two Republicans joined Democrats in voting against the bill, which passed 24-14.

Democratic lawyers complained that the measure would politicize the panels, urging their colleagues excogitate the issue before voting.

“This bill gives too much power to a governor who said he wanted people who thought like him to sit on the judiciary of the state of Florida. And that is exactly what we should not allow,” said Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, a former JNC member.

Giving one governor the ability to control a majority of the panels could erode diversity on the bench, Joyner, who is black, warned.

But bill sponsor Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, called the bill a “middle-of-the-road” solution that keeps both the JNCs from “gaming the system” by sending the governor unqualified applicants. And it prevents the governor from doing the same, Simmons said, by giving him control of only five of the nine members.

“They would only have to have one other person, one of those five, to go along with them in their decision-making,” Simmons, a lawyer, said.

The bill would give judges the ability to work as part-time judges immediately after retiring without losing their retirement benefits.

Cannon ‘skeptical’ about casinos

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011 by Dara Kam

Despite the lure of big bucks in a bleak budget year, House Speaker Dean Cannon is dubious about a proposal to allow up to three Las Vegas-style casinos in South Florida.

“I remain very skeptical,” Cannon, R-Winter Park, told a gathering of reporters and editors at the Associated Press Florida Legislative Planning Session this morning.

Cannon said he remains “philosophically opposed to the expansion of gaming in the state.” His counterpart, Senate President Mike Haridopolos, has pledged that the Senate will have an up-or-down vote on the measure (SB 710, HB 487).

Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, and Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, released their “destination resort” proposal last week. The plan, in its preliminary stages, also creates a statewide gaming commission.

Yesterday, a coalition of faith groups came out in opposition to the proposal, naming its defeat their top priority during the legislative session that ends early in March.

Cannon said he’s aware of a potential deal being crafted by lawmakers that would allow the from one to three casinos in South Florida in exchange for shutting down unregulated Internet cafes. But, he said, “I’ve yet to see a concrete plan to accomplish it.”

Cannon also said he would not pursue a plan to split up the Florida Supreme Court, an idea he pushed but later abandoned during the session this spring.

Courts want to keep more fees to avoid cash crunch

Tuesday, November 1st, 2011 by John Kennedy

Staggered by two major budget shortfalls in the past year, the state court system needs a more reliable cash source than the rollercoastering foreclosure fees lawmakers have steered its way, officials told a Senate panel Tuesday.

Polk County Circuit Court Judge John Laurent, who helped lead a workgroup of  judges and court clerks, urged the Senate Budget Committee to allow courts to keep more of the fees and service charges they already collect, but which are skimmed off for use in other state budget areas.

Judges and clerks also recommended that certain basic costs — salaries for judges, interpreters and court reporters — should come from state dollars, rather than from fees, the workgroup said in its report to lawmakers.

Close to $300 million in revenue raised by the courts are plowed into general revenue and other areas of government, officials said. If courts had been authorized to keep a larger portion of that money, they would have avoided shortfalls that are projected to demand $153 million in emergency loans in just over a year.

Court clerks needed a $44.2 million bailout last year and are seeking another $36 million to get through March 2012.

Earlier this year, the shortfall forced chief judges in Palm Beach County and other counties to consider employee layoffs, furloughs and other emergency measures. 

“This is not a question of us overspending our budget,” said Laurent, a former state senator. “The moneys have not been appropriated to our trust fund to support our budget.”

Central to the court’s woes: foreclosure fees.

 The trust fund that powers the $1 billion court and clerk system draws the bulk of its financing through these feees. But the court system’s cash flow was disrupted late last year by a nationwide freeze on foreclosures by most major lenders.

“It’s not a good, stable situation,” conceded Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales.

Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, also questioned the Legislature’s approach in making the court system so reliant on fees.

Without providing specifics, Negron said some fees charged Floridians for court activities are too high — warning that it could lead to legal decisions that amounted to ”cash-register justice.”

“The court system has become too dependent on churning out revenue,” Negron said, adding that more state dollars should be directed to courts. ”This thing has gotten out of whack.”

The workgroup’s full report is here:

Rick Scott clones, the black caucus and judges

Tuesday, November 1st, 2011 by Dara Kam

Black lawmakers gave Gov. Rick Scott a wish-list including minority business loans, more money for public schools and historically black colleges and restoration of rights for felons during an hour-long meeting this afternoon.

The most heated part of the session came during an exchange about putting more black judges on the bench. Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, pointed out that, of the 36 judges Scott appointed, just two are black, and one of those was a reappointment.

Scott agreed the courts need more minority representation but then used the opportunity to bash the courts, which have ruled against him in two recent cases involving drug testing of welfare recipients and a prison privatization plan. He said he wants judges who “think like me.”

“I remember in civics class I learned about the three branches of government. It appears there are only two. And maybe there’s only one,” Scott, a lawyer, said, adding that the legislature passed those bills, Scott signed them into the law, and judges ruled that they were wrong. “That’s not the way it ought to be. So what I’m not going to do is appoint people that think differently than I do…activists that think that they’re the legislature.”

Sen. Arthenia Joyner objected to Scott’s standard.

“Unless you back off of your ‘think like me’…we have monolithic thinking and there’s no room for a diversity of thought and then we all become Scott clones,” Joyner, a Tampa lawyer, said.

“I don’t see the problem, myself,” Scott joked before conceding, “the words ‘think like me’ might not be the best ones.”

Cannon finds some extra cash for schools, courts

Thursday, March 24th, 2011 by John Kennedy

A day after House budget committees squawked about how paltry allocations from Speaker Dean Cannon were forcing  deep program chopping, the Winter Park Republican reshuffled the books.

Cannon found another $75 million to scatter among schools, higher education and the justice budget panels –maybe easing back on some of the axe-wielding. Cannon said he and House budget chair Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, decided to distribute the legislative lagniappe after seeing how budget subcommittees had done the right thing and focused on statewide spending issues.

On Wednesday, Justice Appropriations Chair Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City, bemoaned the cutting his panel was doing.

Wholesale spending cuts would eliminate one-quarter of the state’s more than 2,800 judicial assistants, leaving judges to do much of their own research, scheduling and brief-writing, to save $13.6 million. Judicial salaries also would be scaled-back, letting the state pocket another $11.4 million.

Rep. James Grant, R-Tampa, said the proposed cuts threatened the legal rights of Floridians.

“We are going to wind up with an umpire who can’t see the strike zone,” Grant said of the burden also being put on judges.

Court woes could get worse under House plan

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011 by John Kennedy

Times are tough for the state courts — which are running a $72 million deficit this year.

But life in Florida’s courthouses could soon get a lot rougher, under a spending plan unveiled Wednesday by the House Justice Appropriations subcommittee.

Wholesale spending cuts would eliminate one-quarter of the state’s more than 2,800 judicial assistants, leaving judges to do much of their own research, scheduling and brief-writing, to save $13.6 million. Judicial salaries also would be scaled-back, letting the state pocket another $11.4 million.

Chairman Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City, said the committee’s action stemmed from the low allocation handed out by leaders. House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, has been at odds with the Florida court system, already outlining plans to dramatically overhaul the state Supreme Court.

“The difficulty with doing this budget is that 61 percent of our money is people,” Glorioso said. “In our budget, if you’re going to cut something, you’re going to cut people.”

But Rep. James Grant, R-Tampa, said what the House is proposing will damage the judiciary — and poses a risk to the constitutional rights of Floridians.

“We are going to wind up with an umpire who can’t see the strike zone,” Grant said of the burden put on judges.


Special foreclosure courts would cost about $10 million but save time

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010 by Dara Kam

Foreclosures could be sped up if lawmakers give the court system about $9.8 million in an era when they’re looking to cut criminal and civil justice spending by up to $500 million this year.

Judge Belvin Perry of the Ninth Judicial Circuit and chairman of the state court system trial court budget committee, told a Senate committee this morning that the courts could set up an “economic default recovery” division staffed by senior judges and hourly workers to serve as case managers until the backlog of foreclosures now clogging the judicial branch is managed.

The new division could be broken up into three tracts for homesteaded, abandoned or commercial properties.

The $9.8 million for the new division would come from the court’s trust fund made up of court filing fees.

Lawmakers increased the foreclosure filing fees last year and they went from $295 to up to $1,900, depending on the value of the mortgage.

“This is a way to take the money that they’ve paid in filing fees to give them the services that they paid for.
About 80 percent of our trust fund is generated by the filing fees in mortgage foreclosures and they’ve gotten absolutely no additional services as a result in the increase in fees,” Perry said.

Perry said that a proposal floating in the legislature that would allow mortgage lenders or banks to foreclose on properties without going through the courts probably won’t have any impact on the cases clogging the courts now.

That’s because current mortgages – more than 500,000 in the foreclosure pipeline already – are based upon contract law and must be dealt with in the courts.

Mortgages would have to be written as trusts for foreclosures to avoid being processed by the courts, he said.

“I think it would be difficult to do,” Perry said.

SCOFLA recommends mediation for home foreclosures

Monday, August 17th, 2009 by Dara Kam

foreclosure-150x150A Florida Supreme Court panel recommended court-ordered mediation for all residential home foreclosures except in cases where banks and homeowners come to an agreement on their own.

The high court appointed the Task Force on Residential Mortgage Foreclosure Cases earlier this year to make suggestions on how to deal with the influx of foreclosures in the state’s courts. Florida has the second highest foreclosure rate in the nation.

The panel released its final report today, likening the impact of the increase in foreclosures on the courts to a car-jammed evacuation route during a hurricane.

The recommendations include expediting foreclosures on abandoned properties and dividing foreclosures into three categories: mortgages on homesteaded properties, abandoned properties and rental properties.

The 15-member panel of judges, lawyers and financiers acknowledged that the state’s budget crisis makes appointing more judges and clerks an unreasonable option while addressing the urgency of the situation.

“Instead, their recommendations include “the least of evils that can work on an emergency basis to immediately begin to meet the challenge of these cases. We believe it is imperative that the Florida Supreme Court address the explosion of mortgage foreclosure filings as soon as possible for the welfare of our courts, our communities, our businesses, and our state,” the panel wrote.

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