Flagler County Court Judge Melissa Moore-Stens, one of the most overworked judges in Florida, may finally be getting help: not a new judge exactly, but just about.
Ludmilla Lelis, the court communications officer for the 7th Judicial District–which includes Flagler, Volusia, St. Johns and Putnam–confirmed this afternoon that the budget the Legislature just passed includes $304,000 for Senior Judge Days in Flagler and Citrus counties. Based on discussions at the court administration’s most recent staff meeting, Lelis said the share for Flagler’s court system would be about half that.
Not all of it will go to county court. Circuit court judges at times need help, too. But much of it is expected to help hire day judges for county court.
County judges throughout Florida currently are paid an annual salary of $138,020, not including benefits. A senior judge is paid $350 per day of service. If Flagler is in line for $150,000 in Senior Judge Days, that equates to 428 days.
The 452-page appropriations bill the House and Senate specifies the exact amounts, which were drawn from two pots: $52,000 specific for Flagler is appropriated for senior judges from one fund. That amount, which would equate to 148 Senior Judge Days, or 29 weeks’ worth, would presumably be used to provide help for circuit court judges. (An earlier version of this story had lacked the clarifying details of the appropriations bill. See the actual page of appropriations relevant to Flagler’s court system below.)
An additional $100,000 is appropriated specifically for Flagler’s senior judicial services from a different pot, and the appropriation specifies: “These funds may not be used for senior judicial services in any other court.” That $100,000 works out to 285 working days for a senior judge, or the equivalent of a full year’s work. In essence, Moore-Stens and Flagler County are getting an additional county court judge.
For that, Moore-Stens may have Ralph Lightfoot to thank, at least in part–the same Ralph Lightfoot who got into an indecorous and protracted confrontation with the judge in a public meeting last October, when he criticized her for not paying enough attention to the canvassing board she was chairing: “If you don’t have time to do it, you need to find somebody else,” Lightfoot had told her. It went downhill from there.
But it was that confrontation that more dramatically than anything else brought to light what had been known and documented internally by the court system and transmitted to lawmakers, but not grasped by the public and taxpayers: that Moore-Stens–who had not, in fact, shirked her canvassing board responsibilities at all–was overworked.
After the meeting, Lightfoot not only backtracked but became Moore-Stens’s biggest champion, campaigning to get an additional judge assigned to Flagler by speaking to lawmakers and local politicians and disseminating the word through media.
Late this morning, he got an email from Rep. Paul Renner, the Palm Coast Republican whose district includes Flagler County and portions of St. Johns and Volusia: “We were able to secure funding in this year’s General Appropriations Act for an additional judge,” Renner–or a staffer on his behalf–wrote. “This will still need to be approved by the Governor, but I wanted to update you on the progress.”
The line was slightly off on what the appropriation meant (the arcana of state budgeting crisscrossing with the arcana of the court system’s budgeting would defeat the savviest analyst). There is no new judge. But the amount of money appropriated would amount to the equivalent of a new judge, as noted above. Next year lawmakers will again have to secure either the funding or the certification for a new, permanent judgeship.
The dollar figure is significantly higher than what had been allocated for Senior Judge Days in the current year, circuit-wide: all four counties in the district received money enough for 264 such days, Lelis said, based on the Office of the State Courts Administrator’s budget. It was not immediately clear how those 264 days broke down between the four counties.
“Obviously it’s in recognition of the fact that the workload for the Flagler County judge was cited as enough to potentially ask for another judge,” Lelis said, “but no new judgeship positions were created.”
Retired judges who’ve picked up work on a day basis recently include, for example, J. David Walsh, who sat on Flagler’s criminal court for several years before his retirement in early 2016.
“I’m constantly working multiple cases and types of cases at one time, so I don’t have much time to do research,” Moore-Stens said in an interview earlier this year. It was not, of course, just a matter of her being overworked. “The way it impacts the community is that sometimes the litigants don’t get as much time face to face with me because I’m double and triple booked.” At the time, Moore-Stens noted, a workload study conducted statewide by the court system “proved I have the highest workload of anybody currently.” The chief judge of the circuit certified the need for an additional judge. But it was up to the Legislature to provide the money.
County court last year, according to the court system’s annual report, handled 3,654 adult criminal cases and 1,657 civil cases. Most of those, aside from cases handled by a hearing officer, would have been handled by the judge.
“I certainly appreciate all the community support,” Moore-Stens said at the time.
Scott has line-item veto power, so the appropriation may yet be taken out of the budget. But it would be a surprise if it were.
“I hope what we did made a difference,” Lightfoot said today. “I don’t know, I think it did. It still has to be approved by the governor.” The effort, Lightfoot said, shows that local involvement can make a difference. Beyond that, additional help for judges is key if the system is to work fairly, he said. “I wouldn’t want to go before a judge who is strapped for time, and I know she did a does great job. I really didn’t know her when I had the confrontation with her, but after that everyone was telling me what a great judge she is.”