State Politics

Bill would eliminate many clerk functions

By NATALIE NEYSA ALUND

nalund@bradenton.com

County court clerks have a slew of duties, including receiving and disbursing court fines and fees from Floridians.

But that could soon change.

Two bills pending in the Florida Legislature would start removing certain court-related duties from the state’s 67 clerks within a few months, if approved by lawmakers and signed by the governor.

Legislation introduced this year by state Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, and state Sen. Ken Prewitt, R-St. Lucie, boils down to a battle over who should collect and spend hundreds of millions of dollars in court fees paid each year.

The proposed bills are supported by Florida judges but frowned upon by clerks who say they should keep the duties.

Both bills have similar goals and would change the way clerks account for their revenue.

They seek to transfer court operations from clerks’ offices to the state court system. Other clerk duties include managing records, assigning court cases and processing appeals.

“The bill doesn’t speak to which (duties) would be removed but my suspicion is, if it passes, that the judges will pick which duties they will remove and the others would remain assigned to the clerk,” said Manatee County Clerk of Court Chips Shore, one of three clerks in the 12th Judicial Circuit, which covers Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties.

Circuit Judge Lee Haworth, the chief judge for the 12th Judicial Circuit, said it is important to understand why the attempt to pass the bill is being made.

“It is not because all clerks in the state are inefficient or doing a poor job. It is not because the Supreme Court is on a power grab. It is being driven by the stark reality that the state is suffering from a depressed economy, a time where every penny spent by state government has to be justified,” Haworth said.

That, he said, is what inspired lawmakers to scrutinize how the judicial branch is being funded.

“In this effort, no stone was left unturned,” Haworth said. “In the process, the sponsors of the legislation concluded the time has come for a seminal change in clerk-court operations and funding.”

Most judicial circuits have more than one county clerk.

For example, in the 12th Circuit, there are three counties, each with an elected clerk.

Each of the two larger clerks’ offices — Manatee and Sarasota — have a department of staff allocated to areas including human resources, jury summonses and coordination, legal services and accounting. They have upper and middle managers, counter personnel and staff dedicated to case maintenance and support of judges in the courtroom.

When it comes to clerks’ support of court operations, Haworth said that there are “obvious redundancies” built into a multi-county circuit.

Haworth said that the bill’s sponsors see an opportunity for the state to save money by consolidating court-related services under one government entity. Bogdanoff projected savings of $200 million a year.

Karl Youngs, Shore’s general counsel, said the proposed legislation could eliminate the clerk’s checks and balances power on the judicial process.

“It could have a chilling effect on clerks raising issues about procedures with the court,” Youngs said. “And it could create a conflict when clerks’ attorneys have to appear before the judges to litigate an issue like filing fees or bail bonds because if the bill passes, the clerks who work for the judges would have to be employees of the judges then.”

Shore said the proposed move is about money.

“The courts have been underfunded for sometime, and this is the method to get fully funded,” he said. “I only wish they would have first come and tried to work with us on the money problem.”

Sharon R. Bock, Palm Beach County clerk, called the bill a “misguided effort” that would eliminate the clerk’s “independent role” of protecting the integrity of court records and court funds.

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