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Court Clerks challenge constitutionality of funding scheme

Court Clerks Challenge Constitutionality of Funding Scheme

Hillsborough County Court Clerk Pat Frank and two other Florida court clerks are challenging the constitutionality of a legislative scheme that diverts millions of dollars from the state’s court clerks.

The lawsuit, filed Monday (October 22, 2018), in Leon County Circuit Court against the Florida Department of Revenue, asserts that the Florida Legislature placed an unconstitutional cap on the fees that court clerks collect from their local constituents, who are not receiving the level of services required under the state Constitution.

Besides Pat Frank, the plaintiffs include Lee County Clerk Linda Doggett, Santa Rosa County Clerk Don Spencer and two Hillsborough County Clerk’s Office employees.

The unconstitutional scheme advanced by the Florida Legislature has taken a heavy toll on clerks’ budgets. Tens of millions of dollars were diverted from the state’s 67 court clerks to pay for unrelated state spending. The Hillsborough Clerk’s budget alone has been cut by $10 million and the number of employees reduced by 25 percent.

The Legislature did this in two ways. First, through a revenue distribution formula it created in 2008 involving 19 different fees. The new formula, however, was not incorporated into Florida statutes and therefore expired in 2009. Despite this, the Department of Revenue continues to follow the expired law.

In addition, the Legislature placed an unconstitutional revenue cap on all Clerks through the state Revenue Estimating Conference. “The cap establishes an artificial, arbitrary and unconstitutional funding level that bears no relationship to Clerks’ actual costs or the ‘adequate and appropriate’ level of funding mandated by the Florida Constitution,” the lawsuit states.

The Legislature created the Florida Court Clerks Operations Corporation to determine clerk funding based on actual costs. But regardless of how much money the clerks collect each year or their needs as determined by the corporation, the clerks’ spending cannot exceed the revenue cap.

“The legislature cannot shirk its responsibility to provide ‘adequate and appropriate’ funding for the Clerks by capping their available funding based on estimated available revenues,” the lawsuit states, adding: “The statutory criteria used bear no relationship to actual constitutional standards.”

“As a former member of the state House and the state Senate, I know how difficult it is to prepare an annual budget for a state the size of Florida,” said Pat Frank. “But the Legislature has a duty to follow the Constitution just as I do. “

The lawsuit was filed by Florida constitutional law expert Jon Mills, a former Florida speaker of the House who co-authored the 1998 Constitutional amendment regarding Clerk funding.