By KATHLEEN HAUGHNEY
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, March 31, 2009... The judiciary's worst nightmare: No public defenders to represent the accused. No state prosecutors to put criminals behind bars. An eerily quiet court house left at a standstill for more than a week because public defender and state attorney offices have furloughed workers.
It could become a reality.
Earlier this month, Gov. Charlie Crist announced that government entities would receive only 85 percent of their fourth quarter budget dollars because of the state's shaky fiscal outlook. There's no certainty that the state will have the money in the bank to pay out those funds, so Crist ordered that the money be held back for now, with no promise that the cash will be delivered in the end.
The precarious fiscal news left public defenders and state attorneys in a lurch. They're walking on pins and needles for the time being. They're still hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst.
Howard Babb, president of the Public Defenders Association, said that public defenders' offices may be forced to give their employees unpaid time off if the state cannot deliver the remaining 15 percent of the money promised to offices across the state.
Babb, the public defender for the 5th Judicial Circuit in central Florida, said a 15 percent cut is equivalent to $200,000 for his office. His worst case scenario is furloughing his entire staff for nine and a half days.
The possibility is another wrinkle in the legal system's continuing fight for money. The courts, public defenders and state attorneys have been publicly fighting for more state dollars, saying they cannot provide constitutionally obligated services with shrinking state dollars. The lack of state funds have led to the layoffs of many support personnel who assist judges and lawyers in processing cases.
Without them, the process has slowed.
Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Peggy Quince released a court opinion in February asking the Legislature to create 68 new judgeships, writing that budget reductions and economic factors have created an unmanageable backlog within the court system.
And, recently retired Miami-Dade public defender Bennett Brummer filed a lawsuit prior to his retirement requesting that public defenders be able to reject cases.
And while the courts aren't facing the potential loss of 15 percent, there could be no lawyers on either side of some criminal cases, meaning cases could get pushed back even farther if furloughs occur.
"If the courts were open and trying to do business as usual and our office had to close down, it would close down the courts," said Nancy Daniels, public defender for the 2nd Judicial Circuit, which includes Tallahassee.
Daniels said she too is preparing contingency plans just in case the money doesn't show up by June.
The result: 120 employees facing a 12 day layoff.
Daniels' counterpart, state attorney Willie Meggs is looking at similar options as a worst case scenario. He said if it turns out that his office will not receive the remainder of its budget - $250,000 - 116 employees will be looking at 10 days off.
"A ton of our people don't make a lot of money in comparison and they live paycheck to paycheck," Meggs said, adding later that it would be "devastating" to his staff.
The Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association sent a letter to Crist last week telling him the cuts would "diminish our ability to protect the public..." A spokesman for the governor said the office was in receipt of the letter and officials were reviewing the situation.
Meanwhile, judicial system players are hoping for the best and pondering what to do if the worst occurs.
Babb said furloughs may leave some public defenders and prosecutors no choice but to continue working for free.
"The lawyers are probably going to have to work keep up with the case load which is already overwhelming, and they're not going to be paid for it," Babb said.
Daniels said if her office faces furloughs, she figures that she will handle all initial appearances by accused offenders herself just to keep the ball rolling. Meggs said he too may just keep working.
"I thought I might come down here to the office and turn on the switchboard and try to answer as many calls as possible," Meggs said.
Illuminating the Sunshine State