Article: Cuts would strain South Florida clerk of courts’ offices

Posted on Sat, May. 12, 2012

Cuts would strain South Florida clerk of courts’ offices

The Miami Herald

People line up at the clerk’s office at the Dade County Courthouse. Lines are expected to increase if funding cuts by the Legislature stand.

In the crowded and stuffy lobby of Miami’s downtown civil courthouse, more than a dozen weary people milled in line, just to turn in a yellow form requesting access to files.
Some were told to come back in 48 hours to fetch their documents. Others learned that the records they needed were missing.

Law firm runner Bryan Lopez needed just two files from the bowels of the old Miami courthouse at 73. W. Flagler St. Wait time: two hours.

“It’s not the employees. They don’t have sufficient number of people,” Lopez complained. “I’m told there is only one person downstairs and they didn’t have time to look for it.”

For courthouse denizens, service at the Miami-Dade clerk’s office has been a perennial sore spot. But in recent years, with government cuts and added burdens to dwindling personnel, observers say the pace of justice has slowed to a grind.

And justice is about to get a lot slower.

Unless lawmakers pony up $31 million before July 1 — money quietly slashed from clerks offices at the end of the past session — clerks of courts offices statewide are girding for more devastating cutbacks.

The Florida Association of Court Clerks estimates that its members will have to shed 900 positions, some through attrition. While some functions, like processing paperwork in criminal and domestic violence cases, must by law proceed quickly, other tasks will be backlogged at an estimated 41 days on average, the association says. That includes indexing and processing everyday lawsuits, probate cases and evictions.

The $31 million in cuts could also mean closing of satellite branches, furloughs for employees and limiting hours that clerks spend serving the general public.

“It’s awful. They only answer the telephone now a couple of days a week; things take a week or more to get into the official records; judges don’t get files for hearings; the whole thing is a mess,” said Miami civil attorney Michael Feiler. “Overall service has declined drastically — not because of the clerks, who work hard — but because of the lack of staff and the ridiculous workload.”

This comes on the heels of 17 percent budget cuts in recent years as foreclosures began flooding the courts.

The result: Employees who log in lawsuits, process marriage licenses, accept traffic fines, record tax deeds and deal with the massive numbers of foreclosures are perpetually swamped and the public agonizes.

“There are going to be delays and we live in a fairly impatient society, so there may be a sense of frustration for people who use the system,” said Karen Rushing, Sarasota’s clerk of courts, who heads the association’s legislative committee.

Said Harvey Ruvin, Miami-Dade’s longtime clerk of courts: “God forbid we start getting a huge influx of foreclosures. We’re surviving and we’ll do the best we can. I’ve been surviving simply on the basis of not filling positions.”

The association has asked Gov. Rick Scott to send the matter to a body of lawmakers known as the Legislative Budget Commission, which could meet in June to approve additional funds for the coming fiscal year that starts in July.

The association hopes to find out by next week whether their request will be considered. Scott’s office did not respond to a Herald request for comment.

The cuts are even more acute because, as of Jan. 1, clerks’ office employees across Florida began uniformly redacting lawsuits for sensitive bank and personal information. In Miami-Dade, employees handed out fliers to patrons warning them it would take 48 hours to retrieve certain files.

The delays spurred a flood of complaints to the Florida First Amendment Foundation, a non-profit that advocates for open government, which said lawmakers mandated the redaction duties several years ago.

“Clerks have known this was coming. It wasn’t something that all of a sudden smacked them in the head,” said Barbara Peterson, the foundation’s president. “It’s something they should have been doing all along.”

Back at the clerk’s office in Miami, the sense of frustration is palatable.

The file-room hours have been pushed back from 8:30 a.m. to 9 a.m., meaning lawyers can’t pull files before morning hearings. Requests are no longer taken after 3:45 p.m., and the hours that clerks help the public may be cut further.

“Clients are paying me to stand in line and do nothing,” said lawyer Bruce Bounds, who represents both lenders and homeowners in foreclosure cases.

Ivan Almonte, of Pro Process & Courier Services, visits the clerk’s office nearly every day. He pulls and makes copies of files for title companies and law firms. He says clients grow angry when documents sometimes take eight weeks to make into a file.

On this day, Almonte was pulling about 10 files. One was a lost cause — he pointed to a foreclosure file that has been on his list almost daily.

“Volume two had been missing since February,” he said. “They can’t find it.”