Clerk of Courts Under Fire

Florida Today News Item

Nov 29 2004

Nov 29, 11:31 PM

Clerk of courts under fire
State claims Ellis is years behind in providing reliable case records

The state's top court administrator wants to know why Brevard County Clerk of Courts
Scott Ellis still isn't providing reliable criminal case records, four years after taking

Ellis, re-elected without opposition to a second term this year, has not
provided usable felony and misdemeanor court filings to the state since
he first took office in 2000, despite repeated efforts by the state courts
administrator during the past three years to help him, according to State
Courts Administrator Elisabeth Goodner.

That inability to bring the records up to date could constitute
misfeasance of office, if it appears he willfully failed to provide the

The ultimate penalty is removal from office.

"We have to consider the seriousness of the problem and are looking at how we'll respond
to it," Goodner said.

Ellis said he has been sending the required information, but the state rejects the data,
saying it contains too many errors.

"She (Goodner) acts like she's getting nothing in data," Ellis said. "They've got enough to
make their projections."

The criminal statistics backlog problem goes back to 1999, a year before Ellis first was
elected Clerk of Courts. It's a source of mounting frustration for the state courts
administrator, who uses the information to calculate how many new judges to
recommend to the Legislature.

"This is the only county in the state where this problem is ongoing," Goodner said. "We
sometimes have problems with other counties, a delay or work stoppage for short periods
of time when they install new systems or upgrade existing systems. This is the only
situation that's been going on for years."

The case filings are a barometer of the circuit court's caseload, and help the Supreme
Court decide how many new judges to recommend to the Legislature. Not providing that
Scott Ellis information could hurt the local circuit's ability to meet a suspect's constitutional right to
trial. It also affects overall court administration, the circuit court administrator's ability to plan
schedules, the county manager's ability to distribute money collected from fines and fees,
and judges' ability to manage their own dockets.

Goodner sent Ellis a letter dated Sept. 15 saying his office has not provided the required
criminal data since 1999, and that if he can't provide it electronically for a period of 12
consecutive months, he must provide the statistics in writing on paper.

She reminded Ellis that he had told the state courts administrator in September 2001 he
couldn't provide those statistics in summary form via paper or electronically due to
system and workload issues. The state courts gave him extra time to address those issues
and install a new data system. She said her staff has worked closely with Ellis for almost three years to bring the
criminal case filings up to the level necessary --- progress has been made, she noted, "but
the inability of Brevard County to provide this data for almost five years has become a
critical issue."

In a Sept. 20 letter to Goodner, Ellis spent two pages describing the problems he's had
gathering accurate information and delivering it electronically, costing his office
"thousands of dollars in overtime pay." He pointed much of the blame at software vendor Tiburon, which he said has provided "less than stellar performance meeting their contractual requirement to provide
certification for statutory reports."

Ellis also said "we do not have an internal application that would allow us to generate
paper reports that would be any more reliable than the Summary Reports audit trails that
your office generated from our data." He said he hasn't provided the criminal statistics for certification of judgeships, but said those case filings are such a small portion of the data that's supposed to be submitted he
didn't see how it could affect the "perception of a reasonable ability" to provide the
required statistics.

Pattie Smith, one of his assistants, said the office has begun resubmitting all criminal data
to the Office of the State Courts Administrator going back to January 1999. Until Tiburon
can fix all the programming problems, Smith said, she could not tell how long it will take
to submit all the files.

Not having that data works against the interests of the circuit, Goodner said, because
judges won't get credit for the amount of work they're shouldering, and that information
is used by the Supreme Court to determine how many new judges are needed.
It's critical to get that information today because the Supreme Court has decided to press
for new judges after a two-year drought. "We haven't had any new judges for the state in two years, due to a lack of interest by the Legislature, other funding issues," Goodner said. "Next year will be a high priority for
the courts to catch up."

Contact Schweers at (321) 242-3642 or
State law F.S. 25.075 Uniform case reporting system.--(2) If any clerk shall willfully fail to report
to the Supreme Court as directed by the court, the clerk shall be guilty of misfeasance in