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In re Certification of Need for Additional Judges

Supreme Court of Florida

November 22, 2017

IN RE: CERTIFICATION OF NEED FOR ADDITIONAL JUDGES.

         Original Proceeding - Certification of Need for Additional Judges

          PER CURIAM.

         This opinion fulfills our constitutional obligation to determine the State's need for additional judges in fiscal year 2018/2019 and to certify our "findings and recommendations concerning such need" to the Legislature.[1] Certification is "the sole mechanism established by our constitution for a systematic and uniform assessment of this need." In re Certification of Need for Additional Judges, 889 So.2d 734, 735 (Fla. 2004). In this opinion, we are certifying a need for two additional circuit court judges, two additional county court judges, and none in the district courts of appeal as discussed below. We are also decertifying the need for thirteen county court judgeships.

         TRIAL COURTS

         The Florida Supreme Court continues to use a weighted caseload system as a primary basis for assessing judicial need for the trial courts.[2] Using this objective threshold standard, we have examined case filing and disposition data, analyzed various judicial workload indicators, applied a three-year average judicial need, and considered judgeship requests submitted by the lower courts including all secondary factors identified by each chief judge for support of their requests. We have also incorporated a rigorous judicial workload per judge threshold analysis and an allowance for administrative time spent by chief judges and county court time spent on county election canvassing boards. Applying this methodology, this Court certifies the need for four additional judgeships statewide, two of which are in circuit court and two in county court. See Appendix. We are also decertifying thirteen county court judgeships. See Appendix.

         As noted in previous opinions, our judges and court staff continue to work diligently to administer justice, promptly resolve disputes, and ensure that children, families, and businesses receive the proper amount of judicial attention for their cases. They do so despite a demonstrated need for additional judges since 2007 and with a smaller staffing complement.

         Our most recent analysis of trial court statistics from fiscal year 2015/2016 to preliminary data for fiscal year 2016/2017 indicates a ten percent increase in county civil filings (excluding civil traffic infractions), a five percent increase in circuit civil filings (excluding real property/mortgage foreclosures), a three percent increase in probate filings, and a two percent increase in dependency filings. At the same time, criminal traffic filings (including driving under the influence) declined by 16 percent, civil traffic infractions declined by six percent, county criminal filings declined by five percent, juvenile delinquency filings declined by five percent, and felony filings experienced a two percent decline.

         Similar downward filing trends are occurring nationally and we continue to closely monitor filing trends throughout the state as filings relate to judicial case weights and influence workload analysis. It is notable, however, that the opioid epidemic is severely impacting communities in Florida and across the country. Ninety-one Americans die every day from an opioid overdose.[3] This epidemic has influenced Florida's child welfare system and has resulted in an increased number of dependency court cases throughout the state. Many trial courts have established Early Childhood Courts for families affected by the opioid epidemic by offering a continuum of evidence-based services, including Child-Parent Psychotherapy-an intervention aimed at healing trauma. According to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Florida Medical Examiners Report, in 2016, six of the seven Florida counties with the most opioid-related deaths have an Early Childhood Court in place.[4]

         Notwithstanding the decreases to some filing categories, our judicial workload-per-judge analysis indicates that additional circuit court and county court judgeships are necessary in some areas.

         Chief judges have identified many workload trends that are affecting court operations throughout the state. Several of the chief judges cited the additional workload associated with the continuing expansion of problem-solving courts (e.g., Adult Drug Court, Veterans' Court, Mental Health Courts, and Early Childhood Courts). We recognize that various studies have shown that well-conducted problem-solving courts, such as drug courts, have been shown to reduce recidivism and provide better outcomes for participants.[5] Yet, these courts also require significantly more judicial time on the front end due to more frequent status hearings and multidisciplinary team meetings, typically over an extended period of time. Other chief judges noted the impact of complex civil litigation, high jury trial rates, and self-represented litigants. Collectively, these factors affect court time and court resources.

         The chief judges have also noted that the number and frequency of court interpreting events protract case disposition times. Florida is an ethnically and culturally diverse state with thousands of non-English speaking residents who access our courts each year. This demand is expected to increase in coming years. This Court is mindful of the demographic changes occurring in Florida and has implemented rigorous steps to ensure that the quality of court interpreting services remains high by requiring credentialed interpreters to provide interpreting services[6] and also by implementing video remote interpreting services in ten circuits using credentialed interpreters which we would like to expand further. The application of this technology demonstrates the court system's commitment to cost containment, innovation, and improved service delivery, while meeting due process of law requirements.

         Similar efforts are occurring using software applications such as Open Court and the Integrated Case Management System developed by the Eighth Judicial Circuit. Both software platforms are open source and have tremendous potential for cost containment and the avoidance of vendor dependency issues associated with the purchase of specialized technology. We encourage the Legislature to favorably consider our Legislative Budget Request[7] for technology as it demonstrates the judicial branch's commitment to apply technology in our service delivery staffing models, to help minimize our requests for additional full-time equivalent positions.

         Nevertheless, chief judges advise that the lack of sufficient support staff positions contributes to slower case processing times, crowded dockets, and longer waits to access judicial calendars. Additional case management staff is a priority for the judicial branch. Accordingly, we fully support the trial courts' Legislative Budget Request[8] that seeks additional funding for case managers, as these positions are integral to case disposition, docket management, and pending caseload reduction.

         On a related matter, chief judges have advised us that because in-court administrative staff, both case managers and in-court clerk's office staff, has been either reduced or eliminated due to budget reductions, many trial court judges are now performing in-court administrative duties such as managing the court record, handling exhibits, swearing witnesses, filing documents, and making notations in the case management systems. Judges performing ministerial and administrative functions is ...


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