House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee hears court spending request
A House panel on Tuesday began weighing the FY 2024-25 judicial branch budget request, a list that includes $8 million to launch construction of a Sixth DCA courthouse.
The money would pay for “Phase 1” construction, which includes such things as site acquisition and architectural and engineering services, Interim State Court Administrator Eric Maclure told the House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee.
“They are currently using a library at Florida Southern College,” Maclure said.
Maclure noted that Gov. Ron DeSantis twice vetoed funding the Legislature appropriated for the facility, including an initial $50 million.
“That would allow the court to come back to you with a cogent and detailed [request],” Maclure said.
Based in Lakeland, the first new state appellate court created since 1979 began hearing cases January 1, and is using leased office space.
The courts are also requesting another $1.8 million for repairs to a parking garage and air handling system for the Fifth District Court of Appeal Courthouse, Maclure told the panel.
Maclure thanked lawmakers for approving court spending requests last year and turned to several items that he said would continue to enhance court operations.
The courts are requesting $8.1 million for “court reporting resources” that Maclure said are “critical to trial court operations.”
The money would pay for 60 FTEs [full-time positions] overall. A major portion of the total, $6.5 million, would pay for additional stenographers, digital court reporters, and court reporting support staff. Another $1.6 million would pay for increased contractual court reporting services.
The branch this year is also asking for $5.2 million and 20 FTEs for “due process resources” for the trial courts.
The figure includes $3.2 million to pay for additional court interpreters, contracted interpreter services, and interpreter support staff.
“We are seeing not only increased duration for interpreting,” but a demand for more languages, Maclure said.
Another $1.2 million of the total would cover an increase in expert witness costs. Approximately $698,000 of the total would be dedicated to additional senior judge days, he said.
Maclure said senior judges give courts the flexibility to manage temporary spikes in case filings. Senior judges will be needed to help resolve the final, mostly complex cases that remain from a COVID-19 pandemic-related backlog, Maclure said.
Lawmakers last year appropriated $28.1 million for “critical due process resources,” that the courts requested to pay for technology positions and salary enhancements for court reporters, court interpreters, trial court staff attorney, and case managers. Those funds only became available July 1, but some chief judges and trial court administrators say the money has already made a dramatic difference in their circuit’s ability to recruit and retain key support personnel.
“I think it’s going to make an even more significant difference as we move forward,” 15th Circuit Chief Judge Glenn Kelley told fellow members of the Judicial Circuit Assessment Committee last week. “It’s going to pay off in significant ways.”
Pressed for time, committee members reserved their questions for two of the biggest-ticket items on the court spending request.
The courts are requesting $27.6 million to help circuits in counties with strained resources to catch up with “case management technology,” Maclure said.
Rep. Tom Fabricio, R-Hialeah, suggested that Florida emulate a more centralized federal case management system.
Rep. Mike Beltran, a lawyer/lawmaker from Apollo Beach, asked about a $47 million request for salary increases for district court of appeal, circuit, and county court judges.
“The goal of this request is to ensure that we are competitive nationally,” Maclure said.
The budget process is just beginning for the 60-day legislative session that convenes in January.
Before adjourning, Chair Robert “Chuck” Brannan III, a rancher and retired sheriff’s investigator from Lake City, urged members to study the spending requests carefully in the months to come.
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