For the first time since courts were reorganized in 1972, the Florida Supreme Court has recommended a net reduction in the number of the state’s trial judges. The court reported that except for civil traffic cases, civil filings are up but criminal filings are down.
In its annual certification opinion, the court recommended two new circuit court and two new county court judgeships, but also cut 13 county court judgeships in 10 counties. The court recommended no changes for district courts of appeal.
While recommending eliminating some judgeships, however, the court said more funding is needed for court technology, interpreters, and support staff, such as case managers and clerks, to maximize efficiency in handling cases.
“The Florida Supreme Court continues to use a weighted caseload system as a primary basis for assessing judicial need for the trial courts. Using this objective threshold standard, we have examined case filing and disposition data, analyzed various judicial workload indicators, applied a three-year average judicial need, and considered judgeship requests submitted by the lower courts, including all secondary factors identified by each chief judge for support of their requests,” the court said in its unanimous November 22 per curiam opinion. “We have also incorporated a rigorous judicial workload per judge threshold analysis and an allowance for administrative time spent by chief judges and county court time spent on county election canvassing boards. Applying this methodology, this court certifies the need for four additional judgeships statewide, two of which are in circuit court and two in county court. We are also decertifying 13 county court judgeships.”
The court called for two new circuit judges in the Ninth Circuit and two new county judges for Hillsborough County. It recommended three fewer county judges for Brevard County, two in Pasco County, and one each in Escambia, Leon, Putnam, Alachua, Polk, Monroe, Charlotte, and Collier counties.
If approved by the Legislature, it would be the first time in the court’s modern era since the current court setup went into effect in 1972 that the number of trial court judges has been cut. The cuts would not necessarily be immediate. Since judges are constitutional officers, reductions would come only as judicial terms expire.
In its 2016 certification opinion, the court called for four new circuit judges and eight new county judges but also called for decertifying six county judgeships, one in each of six different counties. The court at that time said it was continuing to review county court workloads to see if additional judgeships could be cut.
The Legislature did not act on that certification opinion, approving no new judgeships and cutting none the court said were not needed.
The justices provided a snapshot of the courts’ workload in this year’s opinion.
“Our most recent analysis of trial court statistics from fiscal year 2015/2016 to preliminary data for fiscal year 2016/2017 indicates a 10 percent increase in county civil filings (excluding civil traffic infractions), a 5 percent increase in circuit civil filings (excluding real property/mortgage foreclosures), a 3 percent increase in probate filings, and a 2 percent increase in dependency filings,” the opinion said. “At the same time, criminal traffic filings (including driving under the influence) declined by 16 percent, civil traffic infractions declined by 6 percent, county criminal filings declined by 5 percent, juvenile delinquency filings declined by 5 percent, and felony filings experienced a 2 percent decline.
“Similar downward filing trends are occurring nationally, and we continue to closely monitor filing trends throughout the state as filings relate to judicial case weights and influence workload analysis.”
The opioid crisis is putting more pressure on courts, the opinion said, including an increase in child dependency cases throughout the state.
The opinion also said that specialty courts, such as Adult Drug Court, Veterans’ County Mental Health Court, and Early Childhood Court have proven effective but require extra resources and more judicial time.
Courts also require adequate support from interpreting services, in technology, and from support staff, the opinion said.
“We encourage the Legislature to favorably consider our Legislative Budget Request for technology as it demonstrates the judicial branch’s commitment to apply technology in our service delivery staffing models, to help minimize our requests for additional full-time equivalent positions,” the justices said. “. . . . Chief judges advise that the lack of sufficient support staff positions contributes to slower case processing times, crowded dockets, and longer waits to access judicial calendars. Additional case management staff is a priority for the judicial branch. Accordingly, we fully support the trial courts’ Legislative Budget Request that seeks additional funding for case managers, as these positions are integral to case disposition, docket management, and pending caseload reduction.”
The opinion noted that the lack of clerks and case managers has forced judges to spend time on ministerial and administrative matters. It also said the courts need more senior judges and said the requirement that a judge wait a year after retiring before becoming a senior judge has limited the number of available senior judges.
Monroe County might have been targeted for a second county judge reduction, but the opinion said there could be additional litigation and other workload related to Hurricane Irma, so “we will monitor the county court workload in Monroe County for an additional year as that county recovers and stabilizes.”
Also, “Over the next 12 months, we will be closely monitoring the judicial workload of one circuit and nine counties that demonstrate a negative need, but also identified supplemental factors recognized in Rule [of Judicial Administration] 2.240, which influence against decertification, to determine whether additional decertifications should occur in next year’s certification of need opinion,” the opinion said.
A footnote identified those jurisdictions as the Eighth Circuit and Brevard, Collier, Duval, Leon, Miami-Dade, Monroe, Pinellas, Polk, and Volusia counties.
The court said it was recommending no change in the district court of appeal workload and looked at but rejected decertifying a position on the Third DCA. The opinion cited the large number of complex cases handled by the Third DCA, including “complex business litigation, class actions, forum non conveniens, tobacco liability cases, bad-faith insurance claims, and public development,” and that the Third has double the number of oral arguments of other district courts.
The court’s findings came in In re: Certification of Need for Additional Judges, Case No. SC17-1936.