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A bitter power struggle between clerks of the courts and judges in Florida could be resolved by the state Legislature this week. At issue: whether the judges have oversight over the clerks and can give them orders. The clerks contend they are autonomous since Revision 7 to Article V of the state constitution was implemented last year. The amendment shifted the responsibility for funding the courts from the counties to the state and made the clerks self-sufficient. The tension has erupted between clerks and judges in Broward, Seminole, Orange and Sarasota counties. And clerks and judges in other circuits are watching closely to see what happens. In Seminole County, the dispute has boiled over, with Clerk of the Courts Maryann Morse filing a lawsuit against Chief Judge James E.C. Perry in the 5th District Court of Appeal. To represent Perry, the state court system has hired powerhouse attorneys — former Florida Supreme Court Justice Major B. Harding and former 4th District Court of Appeal Judge John Beranek. In Orange County, the animosity between the clerk and the judges has gotten so thick that state Rep. Fred Brummer, R-Apopka, took to the state House floor last week to blast the clerk in his district. Brummer proposed that the clerk’s office in his district be made part of the circuit court as a trial program. He withdrew the proposal after learning a pending bill would resolve the issue. A 133-page Article V glitch bill, slated for a vote this week, includes a sentence that essentially gives judges control over the clerks. “With Revision 7, the clerks think they have autonomy,” said Chief Orange Circuit Judge Belvin Perry Jr. “That was never the intent, although they may be interpreting it that way. Someone needs to take a serious look at this. The clerks are supposed to be working for the judges. That’s how the system is in other states, like California and New Jersey.” At issue is whether the clerks, charged with maintaining all court records, are still under the purview of the judges after Revision 7. The clerks were given the authority to set public fees for various court filings and copies, which would fund the operation of their offices. But, according to chief judges and court administrators around the state, the clerks became too autonomous. They began requiring judges to pick up their own case files, to distribute documents and to make copies themselves — all tasks clerks had previously done. In Broward County, Chief Judge Dale Ross and other judges were enraged when Clerk of the Courts Howard Forman sent his staff home early during one of the hurricanes last fall, before Ross had filed an official administrative order closing the courthouses. According to several judges, Forman’s action caused serious problems and was costly, because dozens of defendants had been transported from the jail to the courthouse for trials, jurors were assembled and the judges were awaiting court files from Forman’s office. Additionally, when the judges returned to work Monday, none of the files were ready. “It caused a lot of anguish,” said Broward Circuit Judge Charlie Greene, administrative judge of the criminal division. Broward Circuit Judge Thomas Lynch, who was presiding over a six-week trial brought against Honda in a $100 million airbag lawsuit, said he was unsure about whether to send home jurors. “The clerk effectively shut down the courthouse,” he said. The situation has been resolved with a new policy stating that the county administrator will decide when to close all county offices and courts during hurricanes. In other counties, the judges and clerks have been unable to resolve their differences. In January, Orange County Clerk of Courts Lydia Gardner sent an 18-page letter to Chief Judge Belvin Perry, advising him of the duties her office would no longer be performing under Article V. The duties included keeping track of unclaimed property in probate cases, preparing orders in mental health-related hearings and attending Baker Act hearings. Gardner also indicated the clerk would have to start charging the court for some duties. “The economic realties of Revision 7 are significant,” Gardner stated. “For instance, this year we must staff a number of new judges and/or magistrates with no added funding. It is time to make adjustments.” Judge Perry fired back a letter, stating that “the court has the inherent right and duty to direct and require the clerk to perform specific functions dealing with the court system.” Perry further shifted some of the responsibility for the issue to the Legislature and said he would seek additional funding for some of the functions. However, he added, “if the Legislature fails to provide the court with the requested staff and funding, these functions simply will no longer be performed. “As you may realize,” he continued, “the failure to provide these services will cause Orange County citizens to lose a vital service upon which they have come to rely.” Perry threatened the clerk’s actions could cause substantial delays in cases. “It was never the intent of the founders of this great democracy that the judicial branch would have to go, hat in hand, to the clerk of the court to beg for services to fulfill its constitutional duties,” he said. Perry also issued an administrative order directing the clerk to continue performing the duties. Perry and his staff began auditing expenses at the clerk’s office and uncovered what he calls excessive salaries paid by Gardner to her staff. His state representative, Brummer, then took up Perry’s cause by declaring last week on the House floor, according to published reports, that “our court clerk budget, ladies and gentlemen, believe it or not, is over $28 million. Court functions need to be run more economically, more practically.” In Seminole County, Court Clerk Maryann Morse went even further. After Chief Judge James E.C. Perry ordered her in February to distribute an administrative order to all divorce petitioners, she filed a petition for writ of certiorari with the 5th District Court of Appeal asking the court to quash Perry’s order. Perry’s order “would require the clerk to perform functions that are outside the purview of the statutory mandates that she must follow,” the suit says. “The chief judge has no authority to require the clerk of the circuit court to perform extra legal functions beyond the rights and obligations given her by statute.” The Office of State Courts hired attorneys for Perry after Attorney General Charlie Crist declined to represent him. In a countermotion filed by Perry’s attorneys, Harding and Beranek asked the court to enforce his administrative order. “It is an unfortunate day for our great democracy when the judicial branch, a separate and co-equal branch of government, is incapable of carrying out its constitutional responsibilities because the ministerial arm of that branch objects to the simple task of handing a document to a litigant,” the motion says. The motion is pending at the appellate court. Other clerks of the courts said Morse went too far. “She was wrong,” said Broward Clerk Forman. “I am not in the habit of have filing lawsuits against Dale Ross, and he is not in the habit of suing me. She did not have to file a lawsuit.” Morse’s attorney, Orlando lawyer H. Terrell Griffin, downplayed the dispute. “There is no animosity here,” Griffin said. “We just wanted to sort out the lines of responsibility. We are trying to get a judicial reading of the Article V statute.” Perry’s lawyer, Harding, who called the suit “very unusual,” agreed that the court’s ruling could be “highly precedential” throughout the state. “Most of the clerks have been cooperative,” Harding said. “This is an effort to clarify who pays for what in the court system under Article V. I think there is some question about the intent of the legislation.” But the issue is expected to be resolved by the Legislature before the appeals court has a chance to rule. Provisions added to the Article V glitch bills in both the House and Senate mandate that “the chief judge of each circuit is charged by Article V of the state constitution and this section with the authority to promote the prompt and efficient administration of justice in the courts over which he or she is chief judge. The clerks of court provide court-related functions that are essential to the orderly administration of the judicial branch. The chief judge of each circuit, after consultation with the clerk of court, shall determine the priority of services provided by the clerk of court to the trial court.”

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