Funding among courts' worries


Published: Thursday, January 2, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 1, 2003 at 9:39 p.m.
Concerns about funding and several high-profile cases, one involving a former Gainesville police officer and another, the murder of a University of Florida medical student, are on the horizon for the local courts.
The booming economic environment of the 1990s gave way to the sagging economy of the new millennium, leaving court programs, prosecutors and public defenders anxious about funding.
But even as the economy seems to be holding its own, the courts now face the hurdle of Article V.
In 1998, Florida voters passed a constitutional revision to Article V, which directs the state to pay for "essential elements" of the trial courts system. Before, counties had paid for some of these functions. With the change, however, the state is supposed to assume the additional costs by 2004.
The problem, court officials say, is that it's not clear which areas in the court system will get state funding, how much money will be available and what programs face budget cuts or could be eliminated.
Officials are hoping the changes will reduce the counties' part of court expenses. But the revision could instead raise costs in some areas. Smaller counties, which don't have automated services, may have to contribute money to integrating the court system and see greater costs. It also hasn't been determined how court fine and fee revenues will be reallocated with the revision. Counties now use the revenues to fund local court activities.
Florida Bar President Tod Aronovitz called the set of questions surrounding Article V "a critically important issue."
"Adequate and reasonable funding of our courts is essential to a democracy," he said. "It's essential to have an efficient criminal justice system. It's essential for landlord tenant eviction issues. It's essential for juvenile justice. If there aren't enough judges and staff and prosecutors and public defenders, then our system of justice is going to come to a screeching halt."
In a meeting with Florida Supreme Court Justice Harry Lee Anstead, Aronovitz said the judge spoke about Article V. "He talks about the fact that Article V funding, that our Legislature is now going to be dealing with, is the most important issue to affect our legal system this century," he said.
Among the cases expected to go before a jury this year are:
  • Former Gainesville police officer Jimmy Hecksel, accused of manslaughter in the 2001 shooting death of UF student Corey Rice.
  • Donald Fair, accused of the 2000 murder of UF medical student Caroline Cody; could face the death penalty.
  • A multimillion-dollar civil case where Florida growers are suing their former lawyers and DuPont, claiming the attorneys entered into a secret, side deal before the business reached a settlement with the growers that made sure the lawyers wouldn't file another case over the fungicide Benlate, alleged to have damaged crops.
    Lise Fisher can be reached at 374-5092 or fisherl@gvillesun.com.
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