March 15, 2006 Regular News Panel looks at the roles of the courts and the clerks Panel looks at the roles of the courts and the clerks Pariente says the clerks spend more on keeping the courts’ records than the state spends on the entire court system Gary Blankenship Senior Editor A Florida House committee is exploring the removal of court supporting functions from county clerks of courts and putting them directly under the court system.“It seems to me this system is designed for failure. It’s not an attack on the integrity or importance of the clerks,” said Rep. Jeff Kottkamp, R-Cape Coral, chair of the Judiciary Appropriations Committee and who brought the issue before the panel. “To me, it is how do we best administer the court system while honoring this separate entity, the constitutional [court] clerk?”In an interview after the meeting, Kottkamp said he may introduce a committee bill to “clearly establish the lines of responsibility for the benefit of both [clerks and courts].“Somebody needs to step in and try to clarify this for the benefit of both,” he added.He also said he’s been concerned about the state system since he was a law clerk for two years in the federal court system, where the clerks report to the judiciary.The committee heard from Supreme Court Chief Justice Barbara Pariente and Eighth Circuit Judge Stan Morris, chair of the Trial Court Budget Commission. They said while the courts work well with the court clerks, having 67 different clerks being responsible for taking in cases and keeping records makes managing the court system difficult.But clerks and Tallahassee attorney Fred Baggett, who represents the Florida Association of Court Clerks, said clerks are responsive to their local voters, including the lawyers and litigants who use the court system, as well as those who need access to court records.The setting was the committee’s hearings on February 14-15 where court-related entities laid out their budget requests and priorities for the 2006-07 fiscal year that begins July 1.Pariente noted that the clerks spend $424 million on the “ministerial” function of keeping the courts’ records, which is more than the state spends on the entire court system: about $405 million for the 2005-06 fiscal year.“From my point of view, to have a clerk of court who is not directly accountable or under the control of the judicial branch is no way to run a modern court system,” she said. “The Supreme Court has said when clerks act as court record-keepers, they are an arm of the court. The reality is quite different.”Pariente also posed this question to committee members: “Would you like to have your records of the House under the control of someone who is not directly controlled by you?”From a budget standpoint, she said the legislature controls every dollar spent by the court system and can see every salary paid, but the legislature has no similar oversight of the clerks’ operations.Other problems, she said, is the court system cannot control how clerks count cases or input data, how they provide services to pro se litigants, how they protect confidential or sensitive information, or technology systems clerks might choose to allow e-filing, which raises compatibility issues from county to county.The upshot, Pariente said, is she, as chief administrative officer of the courts, can’t get basic information on types of cases and how they are handled.“If I want to know the status of cases throughout the state, I have no intelligible way to do that,” she said.When the legislature worked to implement Revision 7, the constitutional amendment approved by voters in 1998 that mandated the state take more funding of trial courts from counties, a definition was worked out, Pariente said. It specified that parts of a court case that could be defined as case “management” would be controlled by the courts, while parts that would be defined as case “maintenance” would be performed by the clerks.“In all candor, it’s an artificial system,” Pariente said. “It promotes inefficiencies.. . . The files are court records and in the end the integrity of those records has to be the courts’ responsibility.. . “What other business or governmental entity operates in a way that they do not control the records they generate?”Judge Morris agreed there can be problems, even when the judiciary and clerks get along.“Structurally there are just some problems, and we have to acknowledge those problems, and there are hardships to overcome,” he said.Morris cited as an example a legislative priority to speedily move on termination of parental rights cases. But he said he couldn’t address that need because he couldn’t get accurate figures on the number of such cases from the six individual county court clerks in the Eighth Circuit. He didn’t get the figures, he said, until he threatened to withhold something else the clerks wanted.There are similar problems with other basic information needed to effectively manage the courts, he said.Clerks, however, argued they can do the job effectively.“I think the main difference between them is court administration and the management of the court system. Clerks keep the records,” said Lake County Clerk of the Court Jim Watkins. “My job is to see the judges have everything before them they need to make a decision as far as the record is concerned. That’s what I see my job as.”Broward County Clerk of the Court Howard Forman, a former state senator, also appeared and was questioned by committee members about bonuses he recently gave his employees that averaged about $2,100 each.Forman noted that while the raises totaled $2.2 million, he also returned $4.6 million in excess fees to the state. He defended the bonuses by saying many of the court employees involved in case management were earning more than his employees in comparable jobs.“If you want to keep people and spend money on training them, you have to pay them a decent salary,” he said. “If all my good people leave me, I’m not going to have a productive office.”He also argued that the public depends on his office to provide efficient services, including access to court records, and if they are dissatisfied with those operations — including the raises he authorized — they can vote him out of office.But Kottkamp said having one clerk give large bonuses can create problems for the state in 66 other counties where such pay enhancements were not given. He also said removing court support functions could be a good thing for clerks.“It seems to me the clerks will benefit from this,” he said. “We don’t put them in this awkward position of being subservient to the court when they’re a constitutional officer.“I don’t see any other way to fix this other than to divorce those functions,” Kottkamp said.But Baggett, representing the clerks association, disagreed.“The clerk is not only supportive of and responsive to the court, which has supervisory authority, but they are elected by the constituency which uses the services of the court,” he said. “For the level of services they provide, they are directly responsible to them.”It has also long been a part of the Florida Constitution, Baggett said, that the clerk keeps records for the courts and county commissions, as well as other official records.