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November 2005

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.


Courts Work Hard to Serve Public Despite Resource Challenges

Someone visiting the federal courthouse in Key West, Florida, with a question for a clerk’s office employee must settle for a telephone conversation with someone in Miami, 150 miles away. No clerk’s office employee has worked in Key West for the last year, a move made necessary by funding and staffing constraints.

"We’re trying to provide a similar level of service despite this challenge," said Clarence Maddox, clerk of court for the Southern District of Florida. "Unfortunately, it’s just not as personal."

Such a visitor, however, can use the telephone life line to get a definitive answer. "A phone at the Key West courthouse provides a direct link to a clerk’s office manager, someone with the knowledge to expeditiously help the caller," Maddox said. And if the request involves reviewing court records, a computer in the Key West courthouse can be used during the phone conversation.

Federal courts nationwide have had to come up with enterprising ways to accommodate the public in the face of reduced hours their offices are open to the public. Clerks’ offices in 30 percent (56 of 187) of federal district and bankruptcy courts reported cutting public hours over the past two years. In a recent survey by the Administrative Office, 36 of those courts said the reduced hours continue to occur.

The reported reductions totaled 597 hours per week nationwide, amounting to 31,000 fewer hours annually.

In the Southern District of Florida, 55 hours per week were cut—37.5 hours in Key West and 17.5 hours in Miami, where the public records counter has been vacated.

"It has taken some time to get used to, and to make adjustments," Maddox said, "but I take it as a good sign that no one has complained lately."

Kevin Rowe, clerk of court for the District of Connecticut, tells a similar tale of making do with fewer resources. "We lost four people through attrition and death in the past year, which has put a strain on the office," he said. "At present, we will not retrieve files from our basement file room in New Haven during lunch time, and we suggest to individuals seeking those files that they return at 2 p.m., when the office will have a few more employees."

In the Eastern District of Virginia, the district and bankruptcy courts—each with four locations—were forced to cut a total of 50 and 30 public hours, respectively, for about 11 months. The district court’s hours were restored on October 17, 2005, 11 months after they were cut. The bankruptcy court will revisit the issue in 2006

"I know that providing high quality service to the public is taken very seriously by clerks’ offices in every federal court, and that reducing public hours is done only as a last resort," AO Director Leonidas Ralph Mecham said. "The survey reflects the fact that some clerks’ offices are severely understaffed."

He added: "We hope final fiscal year 2006 funding will be sufficient to allow the courts to restore the office hours that were reduced so they can resume providing full service to the public."