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Business Observer Friday, Feb. 27, 2004 15 years ago

Call to Action (Tampa edition)

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Chief Justice Harry Lee Anstead fears Florida's judicial system could suffer an enormous setback if the state trial courts are not fully funded in the upcoming legislative session.

Call to Action (Tampa edition)

Chief Justice Harry Lee Anstead fears Florida's judicial system could suffer an enormous setback if the state trial courts are not fully funded in the upcoming legislative session.

By David R. Corder

Associate Editor

Chief Justice Harry Lee Anstead doesn't like what he has to do. But given his druthers he would rather the chore fall to him. He thinks his early years in a Jacksonville housing project prepared him well for a now-certain final battle in the Florida Legislature over funding Revision 7 mandates to Article V of the state Constitution.

This is the year the Legislature takes budgetary responsibility for funding the state trial courts under the 1998 voter mandate. And the chief justice wants to make sure the state at least meets the same level of justice previously funded by Florida's 67 county commissions. He has his doubts, though, considering the recommendations for courts funding in the budget Gov. Jeb Bush submitted to the Legislature.

Bush's Revision 7 recommendations for just the state courts are about 41% less than the amount the Trial Courts Budget Commission - an arm of the Florida Supreme Court - submitted to the House Subcommittee on Judicial Appropriations and the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Article V Implementation and Judiciary.

Expressing a sense of urgency, Anstead recently spoke about his concerns over Revision 7 funding during the quarterly meeting of the Young Lawyers Division of the Hillsborough County Bar Association. It is a task he never expected to fall on his watch. Ironically, the legislative wrangling over Revision 7 began about the same time he became chief justice. His term also expires almost at the same time the funding mandate takes effect on July 1.

"Becoming a judge, I could never imagine one day history would have it that I would be the head of a branch at a time that crisis came," he says. "Now, I'm in a sense glad for that. I grew up on the playing field so to speak, and I got my share of bloody noses and broken bones. And there is something greatly satisfying about being out there in the game and engaging, even if you get the hell knocked out of you. But last year I can say I was greatly concerned about getting the hell knocked out of me."

In an impassioned speech, Anstead challenged Florida's licensed attorneys to heed his call. He says the state courts system faces its greatest challenge to the administration of justice. He equates this call to action to a patriotic responsibility.

"Now, I have to call on your patriotism," he says. "You all took an oath. You all have become officers of the court. And your fundamental obligation as members of the judiciary is at the very minimum to preserve this system of justice, this rule of law that we have here in the state of Florida.

"So you are the ones I have to call on today to live up to that oath, to seek the counsel of your chief judge, in terms of how most effectively you can be in touch with legislative leadership and county commission leadership in getting this help so that we just maintain the system as it is today," he adds.

The message apparently affected many of the young attorneys who heard Anstead's words. They flocked to him afterward. Then they took his advice and sought the counsel of 13th Circuit Chief Judge Manuel Menendez, who heads up the judicial lobbying effort in Hillsborough Country on Revision 7 funding. For instance, there was Ben Hill IV of Akerman Senterfitt, Lara Tibbals of Hill Ward & Henderson and Lisa Allen of GrayRobinson. Each asked Menendez: "What can I do?"

Call or send e-mails to local legislative delegates, Anstead suggests. Reach out to local elected governmental officials. Use influence as members of civic and community outreach groups. He says the threat is paramount to a judicial system that works far better than many elsewhere.

"Presently today, we're facing in just a matter of days a legislative session that will truly determine whether or not the court system and the justice system in the state of Florida suffers an enormous setback or is allowed to move forward in the incredibly positive and constructive way that is has up to this date," he says.

To illustrate his point, Anstead referred to the types of judicial programs that first emerged from Florida's judicial system - such as Miami-Dade County's drug courts and Palm Beach County's court-annexed mediation. Each adopted throughout Florida and now elsewhere.

"Think," he says. "I don't have to tell a room of lawyers, officers of the court, what a fine justice system we have in the state of Florida. You all surely have heard from lawyers in other jurisdictions and people around this country about how good you all have it and how innovative, creative and hard working the judges in this justice system have been in the state of Florida.

"Drug courts and mediation are issues that we at the Supreme Court constantly receive calls from other chief justices and court administrators around the country, saying, 'Please can't you send up a package. Tell us how to do what have been so successful in the state of Florida,' " he adds. "I could go on and on with the innovative ways judges here in the state have really reacted to the lack of judicial resources, in most instances, in coming up with these creative and innovative ways to run a justice system."

All of those programs came after the 1972 voter mandate that created a unified court system in Florida. Unfortunately, Anstead says, the proponents of the unified court system failed then to address funding inequities that vastly favored the deep pockets of the state's urban communities.

"But in the more rural circuits, the poorer counties, of this state, where the tax base was based on agricultural classifications, those county governments hardly fixed the potholes in the roads much less have professional court administration, special masters, hearing officers and all the things that go with a modern court system, all the things that cause the Florida court system to be praised so highly around the country," Anstead says. "And so over the years, we developed, unfortunately, a two-class system. And the people who served on this constitutional revision commission (in 1998) wanted to improve the system even further and remove that inequity and inequality."

The late Tampa attorney and former chief justice Alan Sundberg drafted Revision 7 with the goals of eliminating that inequity and further enhancing the Florida judicial system as a national role model, Anstead says. But he says his late friend would be appalled at the Bush administration's decision to fund only about 59% of the total needed to maintain current Revision 7 obligations to the public.

"It is ironic that with this motivation and purpose in mind, in putting this provision in Revision 7 that our people passed overwhelmingly, that today the enforcement of Revision 7 constitutes a great threat to our trial court system and the rule of law here in the state of Florida," he says.

Even if the Legislature allocates the entire $167 million to fund just the trials courts, Anstead says, most circuits throughout the state would operate under a deficit for fiscal 2004-05. In just Hillsborough, that deficit amounts to about $10 million, he says.

"This, of course is why I encourage all of you, and encourage every lawyer in the state of Florida, to come to the assistance of your local chief judges to not only go to the Legislature but to go the county commission, too," he says. "This is the great risk that the rule of law now faces in the state of Florida."

Over the past two years, Anstead has spoken at dozens of gatherings about Revision 7 funding, says Supreme Court spokesman Craig Waters. Just as he did last year, Anstead is meeting again with the editorial boards at as many newspapers as possible to plead his cause.

"This is why I say that as far as I'm concerned it would be downright unpatriotic if all of us who are sworn officers of the court didn't step up to the plate at this time both for the system statewide that is even though providing help to another circuit in rural North Florida may not selfishly help this circuit right here it's why Revision 7 was drafted and was passed," Anstead says. "It's the right thing to do. It's the absolute mandate of Revision 7, and all of us in the system should obey that mandate and fight for that mandate in point of fact."

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