State Politics

Judges, clerks feud thawing

MANATEE — Proposed legislation at times called by clerks of court a power and money grab by judges may turn out to be neither, but it still could take spending discretion away from elected clerks and give it to lawmakers.

The Senate Judiciary Committee this week unanimously approved a reworked bill that initially proposed a shift of duties and money from clerks of court to judges and court administrators.

Judges throughout the state lobbied for the changes, claiming to be woefully underfunded and unable in the current financial climate to provide services demanded by the public.

The new incarnation of the bill still calls for more oversight by the legislature as to how clerks of court are spending revenue generated by the court. But it moved away from the courts taking over clerks’ duties such as record keeping and fee collections.

Locally, Manatee Clerk of Court Chips Shore blasted the initial bill, calling it an “unfortunate power and funding grab by the courts.”

“Legislation initiated by the courts threatens the accountability and checks and balances on the court system the clerk performs under Florida’s constitution,” Shore wrote in a letter addressed to the people of Florida.

Officials with Shore’s office Thursday said the Senate’s reworking of the bill not to include the transfer of duties from clerks to the courts was a step in the right direction. Shore could not be reached for comment.

“Mr. Shore, I am sure, is pleased that legislators moved away from the transfer of court duties,” said Karl Youngs, counsel to the clerk’s office.

But the transfer of duties is not the root of the biggest fight that could still be ahead, which is still money. Judges are still seeking for clerks to have to go through the same rigors of presenting budgets as other government bodies.

“That is what every other entity has to do,” said 12th Circuit Chief Judge Lee Haworth, who oversees courts in Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties. “We have to do it, the state attorney has to do it, and so does the public defender,”

As it stands, Haworth argues, clerks’ budgets are certified by a committee — the Clerks of Court Operations Corporation — made up of eight elected clerks of courts from around the state, who certify yearly budgets that are presented to the Department of Financial Services, not to the House and Senate.

“An entity affiliated with the clerks is approving their budgets, when they should have to go to legislature just like everybody else,” said Haworth. “It would be healthy for transparency and bring a level of responsibility to the system.”

Sarasota County Clerk of Court Karen Rushing said clerks are not opposed to increased oversight by the legislature, but she argued presenting individual budgets from 67 clerks to the legislature would bog down the system.

Instead, she said clerks still need to present their budgets to experts who understand the clerks’ needs, but new laws outlining a process for full review by the legislature once the process is complete are welcomed.

“We are all for more oversight,” Rushing said. “Everyone should be reminded that the legislature approved this entire process in the first place.”

Both Haworth and Rushing spent Wednesday taking part in negotiations between clerks and the courts. Both praised the spirit of compromise that led to the Senate Judiciary Committee’s vote on the reworked bill.

But there are still some hard feelings over the courts’ efforts at getting more funding from the legislature. Rushing said judges’ assault on the clerks’ duties and funding blindsided them.

“We would have preferred that they come to us first so we could work together on this,” said Rushing. “It will be up to us to rise above the shock we feel as to how this was handled.”