Judicial branch spending causes internal debate

With the signing of the Activity and Service (A&S) Fee budget last month, the judicial branch of Student Government (SG) received an increase of $11,754 in student-paid A&S fees, up to $59,968 from $48,215.

But while judicial branch allocations for the 2011-12 fiscal year increased by $25,978 from the previous year, the branch had a balance of $31,338.34 remaining as of an April 19 public records request meaning it had spent $16,876.66, which is $6,479 more than the previous year.

Most of the changes come in payroll, where the allowed hours for the chief justice and judicial clerk have been increased from 15 to 25 and from 10 to 20 hours, respectively. The chief justice could earn up to $6,150 per year during the 2011-12 fiscal year and the judicial clerk could earn up to $3,820. In the 2012-13 budget, the chief justice has the potential to make up to $10,250 per year and clerk up to $7,640 per year.

The judicial branch, which has nine justices and one clerk, deals with legal protection through a solicitor general, promotes awareness of student rights and responsibilities and provides hearings for parking citation appeals. They also hear cases, but this years one case regarding SG election trials was dismissed before being heard.

Honestly, I dont think (the spending has) been any different in years prior, Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Then, a senior majoring in political science, said. Fiscal responsibility is something that is a key priority for all of Student Government, especially with budget cuts. Any money that we dont spend throughout the year does get swept back into whats called an unallocated reserve account.

But not all within the branch are content with the way money is being spent.

Associate Justice Sean McCarthy, a senior majoring in political science and mass communications, said much of the branchs spending has been unnecessary.

They keep asking every year for more and more money, he said. I have been disappointed with many of the expenditures that I felt were either unnecessary, frivolous or unwarranted perks.

Food, McCarthy said, was often a point of wasteful spending.

According to The Oracles requests for receipts, the branch spent $527.04 on food purchases throughout the year, and spent an additional $488 on meals while on a 26-hour trip to Tallahassee. During the 2010-11 fiscal year, the judicial branch spent $245.44 on food.

While some of the food was given out at Bull Market to passersby wanting to learn about the services the judicial branch offers, much of the food was purchased for judicial branch trainings. For example, on Oct. 1, 2011, $104.33 was spent on taco platters from Tijuana Flats for 15 students.

When you have people there two hours before lunch and two hours after lunch for a training, thats fine, McCarthy said. Thats the kind of food we used to have, very infrequently, and standard food. Its gotten to a point where now if theres any excuse or anything to justify it if someones coming to talk to us, or were going to do something between our meetings, food is ordered, and its only ordered because its being paid for by somebody else and we can get away with it because its in our budget. Otherwise, it wouldnt be happening.

While the judicial branchs annual trip to Tallahassee to meet with Florida Supreme Court justices and legislators was shorter than last year, McCarthy said it cost more. Last year, justices paid for their own meals, he said.

But Then said the value of the trip is in helping hone in the purpose of the judicial branch.

We werent sure how exactly it was going to work out (last year), and also because it was thought of during the middle of the year, it wasnt planned or budgeted for the year before. Much of the costs were paid for by the justices themselves, he said. But what we realized was that it was a rewarding experience, and that this was something we want to keep with our training because its a great way for us to really define what our role is.

The justices met with former Supreme Court Chief Justice Peggy Quince, who was scheduled to visit USF a few weeks later. Then said a visit with an FSU law professor was scheduled as well, but didnt work out because of schedule conflicts.

McCarthy said the trip provided little value.

Its wasteful, its greedy, and its not right, he said. None of the other students that Im in class with got free food that day. What makes me any different from them? Theres no reason for the University to provide that. Students are paying that money in good faith and theres not reason for us to have dinner at Macaroni Grill.

But food wasnt the only area of concern, he said.

According to public records, the branch spent $957 on the purchase of computer-related material, which McCarthy said was a fourth computer for the judicial branch office, and requested $1,100 for another new computer next year, though it was not allocated those funds.

In the Oct. 26 judicial branch meeting minutes, justices spoke of other expenditures.

Were working on transferring money from our extremely large payroll account to other fields so we can buy a new computer, Associate Justice Matrell Everett said. Oh, the name plates are ordered. Theyve been ordered since last Friday, but theyre special order.

Name plates? Associate Justice Jacquelyn Lehmann asked.

The nice name sets, Senior Justice Brittany Cobb responded.

Everett clarified. So that way we have metal ones and we look professional.

Everett told The Oracle he didnt have a comment in regards to the judicial branch expenditures.

According to another meetings minutes, Then and McCarthy debated over the purchase of a new binder.

I still have mine and I think you still have yours, McCarthy said.

Yes, but its very outdated, Then said.

The binder isnt, we can still reuse the binder itself. We just need the stuff shoved in there, McCarthy said.

Well, we have a good budget, so lets make it rain, Then said.

Then said that while he thinks its important to spend responsibly, he and McCarthy sometimes differ on how to effectively use the judicial branchs budget.

Out of all the justices, hes been the most frugal with money, so much so that if we cant get something for free, he wont do it which, unfortunately in this world, theres very little that comes for free, he said. Of course, Im not looking to spend money just to spend money just because we have it. Im looking out for the rest of the court.

McCarthy was impeached in July as senior justice from the Supreme Court on charges of not following Sunshine State Law and taking verbatim meeting minutes. A vote of confidence was taken to demote him from senior justice. McCarthy was not given a trial, but charges were dismissed last week.

At another meeting, McCarthy and Associate Justice Bryan Buenaventura voted against a proposal to purchase leather-embossed padfolios for all Supreme Court justices including outgoing members.

From what Ive seen, itd be better if we spend more conservatively, Buenoventura said in an interview with The Oracle. I feel pretty confident with the new leadership thats about to start, and Im pretty sure well try to spend a little bit more conservatively than we did the year before. Its the students money. The less we spend, the better.

But Then said the purchases were not for the personal gain of employees, but for the increase in professionalism.

We were looking at padfolios because we havent bought any office supplies in the past two years, so needless to say, its time to start looking at new pens and paper, he said. And one of the things was the padfolios because with the courts expanding role, I would like a certain amount of professionalism within the branch, he said.

Then said the additional purchases made by the branch this year were justified for the judicial branch to best serve students.

We realize that this is not just our money, and this is the students money, which is why we have certain things set into place, such as our SG employee policy created to make sure students money is being used the right way, he said.