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The state House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee has targeted state judges for an 8 percent salary cut and would reduce their judicial assistant staffing by one-quarter.

“They did not cut salaries to any other elected officials,” said Polk Circuit Judge John Laurent, chairman of the state court’s Trial Court Budget Commission.

Laurent said the subcommittee chaired by state Rep. Richard Glorioso, R-Plant City, offered no justification for the salary cut proposal other than a general comment that they had to cut somewhere.

The state Senate is considering a 3 percent cut for all state employees. Gov. Rick Scott proposed cutting the number of judicial assistants, now one per judge, in half and requiring state employees to pay into their pension plans for the first time. Florida has about 900 judges.

The 8 percent pay cut came up as an amendment Wednesday at the subcommittee session.

Laurent was present but did not speak directly about it.

“We’re going to continue to work on that,” he said. “The bottom line of our argument is the users of the court system completely fund the clerks and the courts, plus we furnish additional money to the state over and above what we spend, and we do not see any compelling reason for the cuts to our salaries or the cuts to our staff.”

Laurent defended fully staffing judicial assistants, telling the subcommittee: “Sharing judicial assistants is very problematic for a trial judge. If you ask judges about any cut in the court system, this would be the last cut.”

Fifth District Court of Appeal Chief Judge David Monaco, chair of the court system’s District Courts of Appeal Budget Committee, told the subcommittee that judges rely on judicial assistants to schedule high caseloads and screen callers to prevent legal conflicts.

“We have to have someone who can say, ‘No, Judge Monaco is not going to talk to you because you’re actively involved in the case,’ ” he said.

Asked by the subcommittee at the outset whether he would like to comment on the proposed judicial salary cut, Monaco said only, “I’m too stunned to get into that.”

The latest survey of the judicial salaries by the National Center for State Courts report judicial pay across the nation has been faltering since the end of 2006.

The report shows the average salary for Florida circuit judges is $142,178, ranking them 15th in the nation. The median national salary in 2010 was $132,500.

Florida judges have not seen a salary increase in years. While former Gov. Charlie Crist resisted a legislative mandate to cut salaries 2 percent for all state employees in 2009, he did allow the cut for elected officers, which include judges.

Broward Chief Circuit Judge Victor Tobin said the combination of proposed pay cuts and boosts in health care premiums and pension contributions would mean a significant cutback.

“Basically, it’s 20 percent of our salary that we’d lose. That’s unconscionable. And that’s all being done from what I read in the name of some form of retribution,” he said. “I don’t know why you’d be running for judge now, honestly.”

Aside from the financial impact, he noted another pending bill would force incumbent judges to campaign to keep their seats even if no one runs against them. Tobin said attorneys already are sacrificing earnings to be on the bench and adding disincentives would shrink the pool willing to serve.

“If all of this were to come true, who could afford to be a judge?” he asked.

Adolfo Pesquera can be reached at (954) 468-2616.

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