House Judiciary Committee takes up UPL

first_imgHouse Judiciary Committee takes up UPL House Judiciary Committee takes up UPL Senior EditorThe hot topic at the first meeting of the Florida House Judiciary Committee was the unlicensed practice of law, and specifically, how The Florida Bar and the legislature could work together to better protect Florida residents.Ostensibly, the January 8 gathering was the organizational meeting for the committee for its next two years of operations. That included a presentation from State Courts Administrator Rob Lubitz on the structure of Florida’s courts, an address from Bar President Tod Aronovitz, and Chair Rep. Jeff Kottkamp’s outlining of issues likely to be considered by the committee.But following Aronovitz’ talk, several committee members peppered him with questions about UPL, particularly on immigration and bankruptcy issues.] Rep. Gustavo A. Barreiro, R-Miami, started the UPL conversation when he noted that operations have set up in South Florida offering immigration and bankruptcy services, which are governed by federal rules and laws.“A lot of these offices have sprung up,” he said. “People pay two to four times more money than going to (attorneys) and they think they’re getting an attorney. What can we do as a legislature so we put in place parameters for that kind of abuse?”“We are the ones who receive daily the complaints from someone who has gone to someone they think is a lawyer and pays thousands of dollars and they get no legal services,” Aronovitz replied. He said the Bar files cases with the Supreme Court to “protect Floridians who can be hurt by those who hold themselves out as professionals and really aren’t.”Rep. Philip Brutus, D-Miami, asked if the Bar could help draft laws that criminalize some UPL activities. Rep. Juan-Carlos Planas, R-Miami, said he was concerned that lawyers licensed in other states can come to Florida and practice immigration and other federally regulated areas without joining The Florida Bar. Those lawyers frequently have been disciplined or had other problems in those other states, but still can come to Florida and offer services without any oversight, he said.“We have no controls over what other states do,” Aronovitz replied. “All we can do is work closely with you. If there is legislation on this subject, we will assist you where we can. We have the legal support staff and protecting the public is important to us.”Committee Chair Rep. Jeff Kottkamp, R-Cape Coral, said the issue is complicated because it’s the federal government that has jurisdiction over immigration and bankruptcy law. “We will have to work with Congress if we want to regulate immigration attorneys,” he said. “But unless someone complains to the Bar, no one is going to know about it. We will look at it and see what passes constitutional muster.”Rep. Carl Domino, R-Palm Beach Gardens, raised a different issue, asking Aronovitz why, in the business scandals surrounding Enron, WorldCom, and other corporate wrongdoing, accounting problems were highlighted, while attorneys who approved many of the questionable deals were not spotlighted.Aronovitz replied that Florida has very high standards and strict rules and would prosecute such misdeeds. “We are the gold standard of bar associations in the country. We do have in place an outstanding process,” he said.Kottkamp added that each state has its own attorney regulations and “had those actions been performed by an attorney in the state of Florida, I can assure you they would lose their license. Those attorneys were in other states.”In his presentation to the committee, Aronovitz said the Bar would be pursuing three general goals at the legislature this year.One is that the regulation of judges and lawyers remain under the Supreme Court. “That’s historic and we support it,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of all lawyers historically follow our high ethical standards and our oath of professionalism. For those one percent who don’t, they are prosecuted vigorously.”That included in 2001 the disbarring of noted attorney F. Lee Bailey following a complaint by a federal judge. “We are proud at The Florida Bar of our lawyer regulation and our discipline,” Aronovitz said.The second area is adequate funding of the courts, especially with the legislature scheduled to take over more funding of the trial courts from counties by July 1, 2004. That’s important to business, the criminal justice system, and other parts of society, he said.The last will be to continue funding of the Civil Legal Justice Act that the legislature, at the urging of the Bar and others, began last year. “That has been a tremendous success,” Aronovitz said. “We commend you, and we are going to come and ask for a continuation of that.”The Bar president talked about the ongoing Dignity in Law program, which promotes the many positive things lawyers do to help clients every day, from pro bono to routine legal work on a variety of needs.“Some people don’t know that The Florida Bar is not a trade organization of attorneys,” Aronovitz said. “We are a unified Bar and that includes the real estate attorneys, probate, tax law, family law — it’s the whole umbrella of attorneys. But we function primarily for the benefit of the citizens of the state of Florida.. . . “We as the lawyers of Florida, pursuant to Article V of the constitution, act as the arm of the Florida Supreme Court to discipline and regulate attorneys; that is our function. We are very mindful of our role at The Florida Bar in recognizing and protecting the public trust.”Lubitz provided an overview of the court operations and its caseloads.“Our chief justice [Harry Lee Anstead] often talks about the importance of the rule of law and how important the courts are,” he said. “We see our role in the courts system as protecting democracy by upholding the law, protecting individual liberties, enforcing public order, and providing peaceful resolution of disputes.”Florida’s courts handle more than one million criminal cases each year, around 1.2 million civil cases, and around 500,000 juvenile and family type cases.The majority of that work falls on the trial courts, where 280 county judges handle around two million cases and 527 circuit judges preside over 800,000 cases, Lubitz reported. Sixty-two district courts of appeal judges handle 23,000 cases annually, he added, while the seven Supreme Court justices preside over 2,800 writs, appeals, and orders.The courts have seen a constant, if not overwhelming, growth in filings, with cases rising overall 12 percent in the past seven years, Lubitz said. That includes 10 percent increases in circuit criminal and family filings, but a 30-percent increase in circuit civil cases. At the county level, criminal filings are up 5.5 percent, while civil cases are up 35 percent.Florida judges typically handle 31 percent more cases that other judges nationally, and while the national average is 3.5 judges per 100,000 population, Florida has 3.1 per 100,000, Lubitz said.The total court budget is $292 million, he added, of which 77 percent goes to the trial courts, and 15 percent goes to the appellate courts. Administration accounts for about six percent and the rest is for other programs.For the upcoming session, Lubitz said the court system will have three priorities:• Passage of the annual certification for new judges. That opinion should be out early in February, Lubitz said. Last year, the court asked for 34 new circuit judgeships, 13 county judgeships, and two new DCA seats. The legislature wound up approving 18 new circuit judge posts.• Renewing the $2.50 charge on each civil filing that goes to support the court education trust fund. Lubitz said that levy supports one of the country’s best judicial education programs and gives Florida judges the background and training to operate efficiently. The assessment is scheduled to expire later this year.• Working with the legislature on the constitutionally mandated transition that will have the state picking up more trial court costs from the county. That must be done, by under a 1998 constitutional amendment, by July 1, 2004. “We are hopeful that in this session some of the structural decisions will be made,” Lubitz said. “What will be the county requirements, the local obligation? There’s an awful lot of uncertainty. We would like to have some of these broad policy decisions made during this year.”Some chief circuit judges, he added, are already dealing with budgets that will extend past July 1, 2004.In his opening remarks to the committee, Chair Kottkamp said he anticipates some major issues will come before the committee. Those include proposed changes to medical malpractice laws, a glitch bill on last year’s adoption rewrite, the judicial certification bill, and likely rewriting workers’ compensation laws.“There’s going to be a lot of reading, but it’s going to be very interesting,” Kottkamp said. February 1, 2003 Gary Blankenship Senior Editor Regular Newslast_img

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