TAMPA (CN) - The Florida court system may shut down for as long as two months because of declining state revenue - another result of the slide in home prices. The news stunned judges across the state, who learned of the prospect on Tuesday when every chief circuit judge in the state was summoned to Tallahassee for a special meeting with legislators. The shutdown, if it happens, would be the first in state history.
One source said the news prompted a judge in Clearwater to suspend a hearing so he could attend an emergency meeting called by Sixth Circuit Chief Judge Robert Morris Jr.
State Sen. Victor Crist - no relation to Gov. Charlie Crist - appeared unfazed by the concerns rippling through the judiciary branch.
"In October, we took 2 percent from everybody and told everybody to rebudget immediately to provide for an additional 4 percent holdback," Crist said. "They are not being warned again. Now they are being told."
Crist disputed the chief judges' claims that they were taken off guard. He said the judges were in Tallahassee simply to make their own budget requests for the next fiscal year.
Crist, who chairs a committee responsible for funding justice-related entities, said the state is looking at a $66.2 million overall deficit for the rest of the fiscal year, which ends June 30.
Declining state revenue and a $16.9 million budget shortfall for the judiciary means that Florida circuit courts could be shut down for 22 days, while county courts would face up to 58 days of inactivity.
The closures would affect all levels of the court system, from the county courts to the district courts, including civil, family and criminal proceedings.The closures would not affect judges' salaries.
The Florida Constitution does not allow elected judges to be furloughed without consent, but the shutdown would affect judicial support staff, including court reporters, judicial assistants and court administrative personnel.
To meet budgetary goals, the closures would have to occur by the end of this fiscal year.
Florida Court Administrator Lisa Goodner said, "We can't get to their numbers without furloughs."
Thirteenth Circuit Chief Judge Manuel Menendez Jr. added, "It doesn't look pretty."
The slide in real estate prices, coupled with increasing foreclosures, has whacked Florida's real estate tax base hard, particularly in counties that counted on real estate appreciation to continue indefinitely.
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