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Hillsborough County Bar members received a plea this week from Chief Judge Manuel Menendez, Jr., urging lawyers to write Senate President Ken Pruitt and Speaker of the House Marco Rubio in an effort to stop legislative proposals that would slash the local court’s budget by 10%. Such a cut would result in approximately one-third of staff jobs being eliminated from the Hillsborough County court system.

“The great majority of the judicial branch budget (which is less than 1% of the overall state budget) consists of salary dollars. Hence, cuts of this magnitude will mean reducing the number of employees by over 33%,” Judge Menendez indicated.

Menendez indicated that the local courts have already frozen vacant positions, cut pay for some judges, and eliminated the funding for civil traffic hearing officers in an effort to deal with the budgetary shortfall. The approximate 60 jobs that may be lost would include court administrators, secretaries, and case managers. Hillsborough County Court Administrator Mike Bridenback indicated that $3 million to $4 million would have to be cut from the local court’s $25 million budget in order to reach the 10% suggested budget cut. According to Bridenback,

“We’re going to try to keep our criminal courts and our family courts going. Those are the courts that impact citizens more than anything else. To do that, the civil courts would be the ones primarily impacted because we’ll be having to take judges away from those divisions.”

These budget cuts are particularly devastating in light of the substantially increased volume of new lawsuit filings. The increase in filings is due, in part, to the mandate issued by the Florida Supreme Court that requiring former members of the Engle tobacco class action to file individual claims by January 10, 2008. In addition, all of the courts across the state are being severely impacted by mortgage loan fraud and the unprecedented number of new mortgage foreclosure actions that have been instituted.

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