By Mark D. Killian
The Supreme Court has certified the need for 12 new trial judges — but also called for the decertification of six county court judgeships.
“The court does not take this step lightly; rather, we do so recognizing that we must remain consistent in our application of the workload methodology and our obligations” under the Florida Constitution, the court said December 15 in its annual certification opinion.
The court did not ask for any new appellate judges.
The court said one new circuit judge is needed in the Fifth Circuit, and three are needed in the Ninth Circuit. One new county judge each is needed in Citrus, Flagler, Palm Beach, Broward, and Lee counties, and three are needed in Hillsborough County.
The court also said one county court judgeship each should be decertified in Pasco, Putnam, Monroe, Brevard, Charlotte, and Collier counties.
“Over the next 12 months, we will be closely monitoring the judicial workload of several other counties that demonstrate a negative need...to determine whether additional decertifications should occur in next year’s certification of need opinion,” the court said.
With the help of staff from the National Center for State Courts, the Office of the State Courts Administrator and the Commission on Trial Court Performance and Accountability’s Court Statistics and Workload Committee spent the last 18 months evaluating judicial workload, involving the participation of more than 900 trial court judges representing all 20 circuits. The court said it applied a “rigorous methodology designed to evaluate both quantitative and qualitative aspects of judicial work,” including:
• Appointment of an executive committee comprised of 41 trial court judges, two from each judicial circuit;
• Participation in a one-month time study with a 97 percent participation rate;
• Execution of a sufficiency of time survey;
• Site visits to eight judicial circuits;
• A qualitative adjustment process involving 65 experienced judges;
• Final review and approval of the adjusted case weights, along with additional recommendations, such as a higher and more conservative threshold for qualifying a new judgeship.
“The workload study has been a massive judicial branch undertaking and demonstrates our commitment to full documentation and transparency in the evaluation of judicial workload,” the court said.
It has been 10 years since the Legislature last funded any new trial court judges.
“We are mindful that the mortgage foreclosure crisis and other intervening events impacted the state’s fiscal health,” the court said. “Since those crises are waning, we strongly encourage the Legislature to fund the new judgeships identified in this opinion.”
The court said the workload study validated trial court judges’ observations that “although filings may be in decline, workload has increased due to case complexity and other judicial obligations contained in statute or rule.” It has been nine years since the case weights were last updated.
Several key themes emerged from site visits, the court said, including the critical nature of staff attorneys for legal research and case managers for case processing.
Judges in several jurisdictions reported long delays in accessing the services of staff attorneys for research assignments, causing judges to limit their own research requests. Case managers were also cited by the judges as being an invaluable resource.
Absent case managers, the court said judges or their staff attorneys must perform many functions themselves, or, alternatively, if they are too busy with the actual adjudication component, cases may take longer to dispose. Nearly all circuit court judges and county court judges interviewed reported a need for additional case managers. The court asked the Legislature to favorably consider its request for more case managers and staff attorneys to keeping dockets moving.
The court said the study also looked at the contributions of senior judges, as well as quasi-judicial officers, such as magistrates, child support enforcement hearing officers, and civil traffic infraction hearing officers.
“Without the availability of these supplemental judicial resources, it is anticipated that case processing times would be significantly longer,” the court said.
The court also asked for more technology funding “as it demonstrates the judicial branch’s commitment to apply technology in our service delivery staffing models, thereby minimizing our requests for additional full-time equivalent positions.”
While the court said the senior judge day allotment may be sufficient, “we remain concerned that the one-year sit-out provision for retiring judges is impacting the court system’s ability to secure senior judges in different regions throughout the state.”
The court asked the Legislature to revisit the one-year sit-out requirement “as it is detrimental to Florida’s court system and the administration of justice.”
The court acted in case no. SC16-2127.