The Legislature authorized 10 new judgeships last year, but the pandemic put funding for them on the back burner. Now, lawmakers have made room in the budget to staff those new positions.
During the 2020 Legislative Session, lawmakers approved 10 new judgeships and funding for those positions. But amid Gov. Ron DeSantis‘ more than $1 billion in vetoes because of the economic slowdown, the Governor stripped that funding from the budget.
“I simply do not believe that it is fiscally prudent to employ the additional judges at this time,” DeSantis wrote in his veto memo. “However, by signing HB 5301, we will preserve the establishment of these additional judgeships with the hope that they can be funded as the state budget outlook improves.”
In December, the Florida Supreme Court reaffirmed the need for those positions and also made an ask for three more judgeships.
Courts’ workloads have been light throughout the pandemic with few in-person trials moving forward. However, an influx is expected as trials resume and pandemic-related cases also go to court.
In the House’s initial budget plan, they allocated funding to fill eight of those positions for $1.3 million. Meanwhile, the Senate’s offer made no funding offer on that front.
However, the latest stage of the budget negotiating process saw both the House and the Senate agree to fund those 10 positions at $1.6 million.
Discussions are also moving regarding the additional judgeships the Court has requested, as outlined in this year’s version of HB 5301.
Both the latest House and Senate offers would call for an additional circuit judge in the Panhandle’s 14th Judicial Circuit. Both offers also call for an additional two county judges in Hillsborough County and one in St. Johns County, and the Senate’s latest offer also calls for one more judge in Citrus County.
Elsewhere in the justice budget, Senate negotiators agreed to fully fund the Guardian ad Litem program, which represents abused, abandoned and neglected children in the state’s dependency courts. The program — which offers three-person teams consisting of an attorney, a social worker and a volunteer — has more than 10,000 volunteers statewide.
The agency is receiving $55.8 million this fiscal year with a payroll covering the equivalent of nearly 750 full time employees. But the Senate had proposed cutting $1.6 million from their budget and the equivalent of 24 employees.
That proposal made it one week into budget negotiations. But on Friday evening, the Senate agreed to the House’s position that the funding remain in tact.
In the justice system portion of the state budget, lawmakers also agreed to increasing public defender funding by three employees at around $575,000. Meanwhile, state attorneys received a $1.2 million boost, the majority of which was related to reassigned death penalty cases.