Could Economic Troubles Make Florida Courts Too Expensive?

The economic crunch facing both Florida and the nation at large has led many Floridians to reconsider what once were normal expenses, as people are forced to forego a meal at a nice restaurant, have their cable television service disconnected, or perhaps let their gym membership lapse. Those who have lost jobs or face reduced work hours may even have to sacrifice their automobile or move into a smaller home or apartment. As Florida's budget crisis worsens, however, could the next sacrifice Floridians are forced to make lie in access to the state's court system?

Traditionally, state court workloads get heavier during economic hard times. The recent burst of the housing bubble has led to skyrocketing mortgage foreclosure claims. Tightening in the credit market has forced individuals and companies to file an increasing number of contract claims - while people tend not to fight over contracts when times are good, placing the long-term benefit to relationships over short-term financial gain, they may be compelled to do so when finances tighten. More broadly, the general economic climate has led to a considerable increase in financial crimes, such as fraud and embezzlement.

At the same time as caseloads are increasing, the budget for Florida's judicial system is facing its own crunch. Budget shortfalls forced the state's judiciary to cut 280 positions in the first half of 2008, amounting to almost 10 percent of the judicial workforce. (While a plan was in place to lay off an additional 250 more by October 1 of last year, this second round of cuts was averted.)

This hefty reduction in personnel among Florida's court system highlights one of the chief distinctions between the judicial branch and other state services. Since courts are constitutionally required to offer their services, when finances are tight judges and court administrators do not have the option of cutting services, as other state administrations might. Furthermore, while the budgets for many of Florida's administrative bodies and other organizations that receive state funding are largely tied up in programs or facilities, the vast majority of the judicial budget goes directly to personnel salaries.

By and large, salaries for judges are not affected by budget cuts. Instead, magistrates, administrators and other court staff personnel feel the brunt of the financial shortfall. If left unchecked, this can lead to a lack of hearing officers to handle child support hearings or traffic court, or cause district courts of appeal to temporarily shut down for lack of staff.
The public may feel the effects of a beleaguered court system in a couple of ways. First, staff shortages and increased workloads can work as a bottleneck in the system, causing delays in civil (and criminal) cases. A delay in civil litigation can lead to increased legal fees, lost interest on eventual judgments and other expenses that business and legal firms must bear. At least one expert has estimated that Florida's overworked judicial system will cost the state's economy more than $17 billion in lost economic output.

More directly, citizens may soon face an increase in court filing fees and other expenses, as local court systems struggle to keep their doors open as they receive less and less money from the state. These increased administrative costs are especially troubling to many members of the judiciary, as they understand that rising expenses may keep some potential plaintiffs from seeking their day in court, solely because they can't afford the cost of filing their claim.

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