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This is a diary about local politics, but hey, all politics are local, right? The Florida State Legislature is currently considering two identical Republican bills (HB1121 in the House, SB 2108 in the Senate) that would dismantle the 66 Clerk of Courts offices in my State, and absorb their functions into the State Judicial system. Under this system of "Cash-Register Justice," an already overstressed court system would now be in charge of collecting fees and fines currently handled by the Clerks. The current system has worked for almost 200 years, employs hundreds of people Statewide, and there's no reason to change it now.

My mother is an employee of one of the Clerks' offices, she's fighting to keep our family afloat, as my dad lost his job the week of Christmas and hasn't found anything yet. This Legislation would eliminate her position.  

I have a little perspective on the other side of this coin. My wife works in the State Courts, the ones that would bear the responsibility of taking on the workload from the Clerks' Office, were it to be eliminated. They are facing a woeful budget situation, like most of the rest of the Circuits Statewide. She hasn't gotten a raise or bonus in two years. The "logic" behind the legislation is that money collected from the fees and fines they would take over will go toward shoring up their budgets. The reality is that staff in these offices are already overworked and underpaid, and adding the MASSIVE task that the Clerks are currently doing to their responsibilities is no easy matter. Revenues (already strained) would drop even further as the administration of fees became not a dedicated task of one entity, but just one more thing to juggle for another.

There's also the issue of the employees of the 66 Clerks Offices that would lose their jobs, including my mom. Ken Pruitt, a Republican from the district just up the road from me, doesn't seem to care so much about that. I know the argument is that these employees are "Duplicated" elsewhere, but there's no substitute for the work they're doing, it's not like the Court Admin buildings have offices full of folks just twiddling their thumbs.

Then there's the idea of checks and balances, of keeping the Judicial System separate from the administration of fines and fees it collects. I don't know about you, but I think having a distinct entity to collect money adds an important level of impartiality between the Judiciary and the money that is collected as a result of their decisions. The potential for impropriety (or even just the appearance of impropriety) is far greater under this plan.

From a Letter by Dwight Brock, Collier County Clerk:

In addition, the bill would have wide ranging impact on who collects, disburses and uses court fines and fees to fund the Florida court system. If passed, judges would have the ability to set and collect fines and/or fees and then allocate those same funds to pay for their salary, support staff and office expenses. The term "cash register justice" describes what could potentially result if this legislative effort is successful. All control of the court system would then be in the hands of the lawyers and the judges. It is likely this change will result in higher taxes to support the larger court system and bureaucracy.

Finally, the bill was filed by Representative Ellyn Bogdanoff right before the legislative session began with little public knowledge or debate.

Finally, the ultimate result of this will be to amend the Florida State Constitution with a legislative process. Voters have spoken on this issue (even though it's occasionally a maddening aspect of FL law,) and changing the Constitution should only be an option if it passes as a ballot initiative in a Statewide Election. The People have a right to decide if they wish for a fundamental aspect of our State Justice System is to be eliminated, especially one that's been working just fine for almost two hundred years.

For more information:
FL Clerks and Comptrollers Website
Clerk of Courts Budget: Myth vs Facts (.pdf)
Keys News Article
Orlando Sentinel Article

This may seem like a small issue, it might not be important to you, especially if you live in one of the other 49 States. But I'd ask you to help me today, to join me in opposing HB1121 and SB 2108.

Contact or Call Governor Charlie Crist today at - (850) 488-7146

Contact the Members of the Appropriate Committees:

Civil Justice & Courts Policy Committee

Thompson, Nicholas R. (R)-Chair (239) 533-2411
Weinstein, Michael B. (R)-Vice Chair (904) 213-3005
Scionti, Michael (D)-Democratic Ranking Member (813) 673-4673
Ambler, Kevin C. (R) (813) 558-1333
Eisnaugle, Eric (R) (407) 893-3141
Fetterman, Adam M. (D) (772) 873-6500
Gibson, Audrey (D) (904) 353-2180
Grady, Tom (R) (239) 417-6200
Hukill, Dorothy L. (R) (386) 322-5111
Snyder, William D. (R) (772) 221-4904

Criminal & Civil Justice Appropriations Committee

Adams, Sandra (R)-Chair (407) 977-4020
Thompson, Nicholas R. (R)-Vice Chair (239) 533-2411
Rouson, Darryl Ervin (D)-Democratic Ranking Member (727) 552-1370
Eisnaugle, Eric (R) (407) 893-3141
Planas, Juan-Carlos (R) (305) 442-6800
Snyder, William D. (R) (772) 221-4904
Soto, Darren (D) (407) 846-5187
Taylor, Priscilla (D) (561) 840-4814

Please help me out here. It's a bad law, and it's the well-being of my family that's at stake here, in more ways than one. It's a small thing, but by contacting the Democrats (heck, and the Republicans) on these Republican-Controlled committees, you can help in a meaningful way. State House and Senate members are more accessible than National ones, and they RESPOND to pressure from constituents.

Thanks.

Originally posted to Surly Cracker on Tue Mar 10, 2009 at 08:58 AM PDT.

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