Frederick J. Lauten. Guest Columnist, July 13, 2018
While the importance of sound budgeting cannot be overstated, the notion of justice as an undeniable right independent of a budget line item should not be understated.
With a growing population and a base constituency of 1.7 million people, the Ninth Judicial Circuit has been operating at maximum effort with minimum resources for years. Despite a caseload that has qualified the circuit for additional judges every year since 2006, no new judgeships have been allocated. While an ever expanding workload coupled with chronically insufficient resources would spell a reduction in services for most agencies and businesses – the judiciary is not afforded that option, nor should it be.
Time and again, I have been faced with the dilemma of how to best spread inadequate resources across the circuit while ensuring each division of court has adequate funding to serve justice. Where should limited resources be deployed? To the family division, the criminal division, the juvenile division, the civil division, the probate division?
It is a delicate balance, maintained only under constant supervision. That balance tipped when the strain of increasing demands created an untenable backlog in the family division, placing an undue burden on Central Florida’s already overburdened families seeking justice in the courts.
The family division hears matters that are critical to the health, safety, and well-being of families, and many of them involve emergency situations. The already intense pressures and anxiety felt by families in crisis should not be heightened nor compounded by waiting for unreasonable lengths of time for a hearing. Can the court reasonably ask a spouse to wait for an alimony check that pays a mortgage? Should a child be forced to wait for support payments because of crowded dockets? Who can best bear the brunt of delayed hearings because of inadequate court funding? I made the difficult decision to shut down business court and move resources to the family division because we cannot ask families and children to suffer the adverse consequences that inadequate court funding imposes. So effective July 2, I moved resources and judges from the business court to the family division and moved the business court caseload into the general civil division.
What is the impact of closing business court? The business court handled complex commercial litigation – cases that often take years to prepare and weeks to months to try. Judges assigned to business court enjoyed greater tenure than in any other division in order for them to become experts in managing complex commercial cases. Moving these cases to the general civil division will inevitably slow the processing of those cases as well as the other cases already assigned to the circuit civil division.
While the closure of the business division provides immediate relief to families – and brings us back to that delicate balance – it does not address the foundational dilemma of inadequate funding. There is a limit to how far funds can be stretched, and without immediate relief, there can be no effective change in the functioning of the courts. Regardless of the long hours and herculean efforts by the judges and staff to meet the increasing demands, all that changes in the face of static funding is which members of our community will bear the brunt of the burden. It is my hope, and the hope of the court, that the legislature will recognize our need and provide the resources necessary to serve everyone seeking justice as we move forward.
Frederick J. Lauten is the Chief Judge of the Ninth Judicial Circuit Court in Florida