Legislature eyeing court’s request for more judges March 15, 2002 Gary Blankenship Senior Editor Regular News Legislature eyeing court’s request for more judges Senior EditorFlorida’s budget crunch will be hitting the courts hard, as it appears likely only a small percentage of new judges sought by the Supreme Court will be approved by legislators. But plans to offer student loan repayment incentives to prosecutors and public defenders are moving ahead.The Senate Judiciary Committee on February 26 took up SB 1654, which originally contained the 49 new judges certified as needed by the Supreme Court earlier this year to keep up with rising caseloads and population growth.With little discussion, the bill was amended to include only 10 new judges — seven circuit and three county — for the 2002-03 fiscal year. A similar House measure, HB 1927, funds only two new district court of appeal judges, one each in the Second and Fourth DCAs.The court had asked for 34 new circuit judgeships, 13 new county judge posts, plus the two DCA judgeships in the House bill.Committee Chair Sen. Locke Burt, R-Ormond Beach, said the 10 positions are what were included in the preliminary Senate budget.“These are the 10 places where the court said there is the greatest need,” he added.The bill provides for one new county judge each in Duval, Palm Beach, and Broward counties, and one new circuit judge each in Fifth, Eighth, Ninth, 10th, 11th, 13th, and 20th circuits.The bill next goes to the Appropriations Committee. The action appears to continue the Supreme Court’s recent difficulty in getting new judgeships. In 2000, the court asked for 43 new positions, but due to a legislative oversight, none were approved. Last year, the court asked for 44 new judgeships, but only 26 were authorized.The committee also unanimously passed SB 1138, which sets up a state fund to repay the student loans for assistant state attorneys and assistant public defenders.Sponsor Sen. Skip Campbell, D-Tamarac, said the typical starting salary for those attorneys is $35,000 — far less that many private sector jobs — and they can have student loan debts of up to $120,000. That has, he added, contributed to a 25-percent turnover rate for public defender and state attorney offices.The bill authorizes the state to repay $3,000 a year of student loans after an assistant public defender or assistant state attorney has been employed in an office for three years. It hikes that to $5,000 after six years and terminates after 12 years, or a maximum repayment of $44,000.At Burt’s suggestion, Campbell agreed to an amendment that would add lawyers working for the three capital collateral regional counsels to the bills. The committee discussed but decided against making another change that would allow lawyers to count cumulative service between various public defender and state attorney offices toward getting the loan repayments. Sen. Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg, said that could defeat the goal of getting stable employment within each office.Similar legislation, HB 307, has cleared two committees in the House and is pending before the Criminal Justice Appropriations Subcommittee.