House Bill 1121 pits Clerks against Courts listen03/23/09 Lisa Marzilli
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A bill currently making its way through the Florida Legislature has pit the court system against the state's 67 Clerks of Court. House Bill 1121 calls for a complete transfer of responsibilities from the clerks to the chief judges and court administrators within four years.
Legislators and judges say the bill would save the state millions and bring much needed budget accountability to the Clerks' offices. But the clerks see the bill as a money and power grab by an underfunded court system. HB 1121 is sponsored by Fort Lauderdale Republican Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff.
This fiscal year the clerks will collect close to $1 billion in fines and filing fees. About $600 million will be kept by the clerks to fund their budgets. Under HB 1121 the revenue collected by the clerks would be placed in a judicial trust fund and then used to fund the courts, which now rely on funding from the state Legislature.
Judges throughout the state are lobbying hard for the bill saying they are grossly underfunded. They also say that the clerks should have to go through the same budget scrutiny that every other government body goes through.
Mike Bridenback is Court Administrator for the 13th Judicial Circuit in Tampa. He says the problem is that there are two separate and unequal processes when it comes to how the two groups are being treated.
Rep. Bogdanoff says for years the Legislature has given the clerks tremendous flexibility and freedom to spend their money as they see fit but says it’s completely unacceptable that some clerks are handing out huge bonuses at the same time that state attorneys are asking their employees to sacrifice.
Pat Frank is Clerk of the Circuit Court and Comptroller for Hillsborough County. She said she understands the frustration of the courts having to beg the Legislature for money. But she strongly disagrees with the charge that there is no budget oversight.
The clerks say the other major issue with the proposal is that it threatens the checks and balances their office provides on the court system under the constitution. They say that having a clerk that is independently elected and answerable to the public maintain and protect official court records, eliminates any possibility of wrongful recording of what occurs in the courtroom or with a case. Highlands County Clerk of Courts, Bob Germaine agrees and says it’s all about accountability.
Rep. Bogdanoff said it’s offensive to even suggest that judges would misuse their office. She said the clerks are overstating their importance.
Frank says her office has a good working relationship with the judges but she can foresee situations where if the clerk is under the judge’s jurisdiction there could be an intimidation on the part of clerks to do what the judges want.
Last week a Senate judiciary committee produced a new version of the companion bill being sponsored by Republican Sen. Ken Pruitt, which would leave the Clerk’s duties intact but turn the money they collect over to the state and give the Legislature authority to set their budget. Bogdanoff said the Senate version doesn’t go far enough but Pat Frank told WMNF she could live with the compromise.