Archive for April 6th, 2011

ACLU Joins the Foreclosure Fight

The ACLU has filed an extraordinary writ petition in Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal, challenging the procedures in place in Lee County’s foreclosure courtrooms.  This should come as no surprise, as the appeal challenges the very issues I’ve discussed in this blog, i.e. setting trials when a case is not at issue, not allowing phone appearances, judges prosecuting cases, etc.  In fact, I’m pleased to say I filed an affidavit supporting the petition. 

Quite candidly, as a conservative Republican, I’m not sure I ever envisioned the day I’d be joining forces with the ACLU.  But the diversity of our positions actually illustrates the point – the procedures in Lee County are so perverse that political views fall by the wayside; right is right and wrong is wrong, and Lee County’s foreclosur procedures are just wrong.   

The ACLU has a press conference scheduled tomorrow to discuss this issue in more detail.  Here’s a press report on the story.

Mark Stopa

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Florida Court System – on the Verge of Closing Down?

I had a hearing in Volusia County this morning, and the judge explained that if funds were not immediately received for the court to operate that the Court would be forced to close, starting on Monday.  No, I’m not talking about one judge, or just the senior judges – I’m talking about the entire civil court system – CLOSED.  And I’m not talking just about Volusia County, either – this is a state-wide problem.  In Pinellas, for instance, judges were discussing the potential need to close the civil courthouse for the entire month of June. 

These ridiculous budget problems should never have reached this point.  In my view, the problem started when the legislature started forcing the courts to rely on filing fees from foreclosure cases to fund daily operations of the court system.  Perhaps this worked for a while, but, to nobody’s surprise, when the foreclosure filings decreased in recent months, the Florida courts did not have enough money to operate.  In response, instead of budgeting more money for the operation of the courts, the legislature and Governor Scott did nothing, letting this problem reach the point where judges, litigants, and lawyers feared the court would have to close altogether.

Today’s breaking news is that the Governor finally approved temporary funding, avoiding a furlough, at least for now.  However, this is not a solution – it’s putting a band aid on a patient who needs surgery. 

Respectfully, I’m appalled that Governor Scott would let the problem reach this point.  A functioning court system is at the heart of the state.  Child custody disputes, restraining orders, foreclosure cases, and all other types of civil cases cannot be resolved/adjudicated without a court. 

Reading the article, here, it seems Governor Scott delayed his approval of this funding to induce the courts to agree to accept less … sort of like a game of chicken.  I wish the judges made the Governor jump off the tracks first.  “No, Governor Scott, we can’t reduce our funding any lower” … and if he refused to grant the necessary funding, force the temporary furlough.  Perhaps if Governor Scott saw how Florida operated without a court system then he’d start to garner some appreciation for the funds that are needed to keep the system functional. 

Anyway, it’s truly sad that it’s come to this. 

Here’s the article. …

Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles T. Canady and Gov. Rick Scott‘s Office reached a breakthrough emergency funding agreement Wednesday morning, sparing courts statewide from having to shut down for four days next week and two weeks in May.  Scott agreed to a $19.5 million bridge loan, enough money to keep circuit and county courts going through the end of the May. An earlier deal with the Legislature means there will be no shutdown in June. And courts should be flush with newly appropriated money July 1, at the start of the new fiscal year.  The loan means more than 4,000 employees in courthouses across the state will not be forced into furloughs.

“I am very happy to say that the people of the state of Florida will have a well-functioning court system for the balance of this fiscal year,” Chief Orange-Osceola Judge Belvin Perry Jr. told reporters during a break in a Casey Anthony hearing at the Orange County Courthouse.

Just Tuesday, it was feared the court budget shortfall would mean furloughed employees plus three weeks of shuttered courts.  Canady began warning legislators and other state officials of a probable cash shortfall in January. He implemented a hiring freeze in February.  He went public with his request for emergency funds three weeks ago. Both houses of the Legislature had approved the loan but Scott only authorized a portion of it — $14 million. That left a gaping hole and time running out.

Chief judges from around the state met with court budget writers in Tallahassee Monday and shaved about $9 million from their request. They warned Scott that if he didn’t agree to a bigger loan by this Friday, a cash flow emergency would force them to shut down court operations Monday through Thursday of next week and for 10 additional days in May.

News of possible furloughs and an impending court shutdown spread around the state Tuesday as chief judges warned their employees and explained the problem to reporters.

Orlando attorney David Oliver was on Day 2 of a two-week multimillion-dollar jury trial before Circuit Judge Thomas B. Smith in Orange County when the judge Tuesday warned that the trial might be interrupted and he might declare a mistrial due to the funding crisis.

“Obviously, that was devastating news to hear,” Oliver said.

But with Scott saying yes to the loan, his trial continued.

Wednesday morning, Jerry McDaniel, director of Scott’s Office of Policy and Budget, sent Canady a two-paragraph letter, authorizing the $19.5 million loan from state trust funds.

Lane Wright, Scott’s press secretary, said the governor had wanted to see that judges were willing to make sacrifices.

“The Governor wanted to get those cost containment measures,” Wright said.

Said Perry, “We’ve had to tighten our belts, but at least we will be able to keep the doors open and provide a certain level of service rather than no service at all.”

There are just over 4,000 affected employees statewide — 921 are judges.

Had Scott not authorized the loan, courts statewide would have fired 220 employees – most of them traffic hearing officers. They’d also have stopped temporarily hiring retired judges to fill staffing gaps and halted payments to some contractors, including court reporters, expert witnesses and interpreters.

The court funding crisis is another outgrowth of the state’s mortgage crisis. Courts in Florida are primarily funded by filing fees. They’ve been a reliable revenue stream because of the glut of foreclosure suits in recent years, but a few months ago, that stream slowed to a trickle as mortgage companies scrambled to find documents to authenticate individual loans, fallout from allegations of loan officer “robosigning.”

The Office of State Courts Administrator, which manages the courts’ budget, reported last month that mortgage suit filing fees were 43 percent below projections for the fiscal year.

In Orange-Osceola they went from an average of 31,000 new cases a month to 3,100, Perry said.

“That,” he said, “was a major problem.”

Mark Stopa

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