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Almost 7,000 respond to judicial circuit consolidation surveys

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The Fiscal and Resource Subcommittee plans to provide a statewide, collective analysis of what the potential fiscal impact would be for consolidation

Florida's 20 Judicial Circuits

Florida’s 20 Judicial Circuits

A Supreme Court panel that is reviewing the potential consolidation of Florida judicial circuits has received nearly 7,000 survey responses.

Fourth District Court of Appeal Judge Jonathan Gerber, who chairs the Judicial Circuit Assessment Committee, referred to the robust response at a September 15 meeting conducted via Zoom.

“I am grateful to everybody, all 7,000 folks out there who took the time to provide us that information,” he said.

Chief Justice Carlos Muñiz appointed the committee after House Speaker Paul Renner suggested that consolidation could promote greater efficiency and save taxpayer money. His June letter noted that circuit boundaries were last revised in 1969.

Muñiz appointed the assessment committee June 30, stressing that the Supreme Court was not expressing “any view on the merits at this time.”

Muñiz noted that Rule 2.241, which governs the process, requires the court to weigh the potential benefits as well as “the potential impact and disruption” and “less disruptive adjustments.”

Administrative Order AOSC23-35, In Re: Judicial Circuit Assessment Committee, directs the committee, among other things, to limit its potential recommendations to “whether there is a need to consolidate (i.e., reduce the number of) Florida’s judicial circuits,” and to “assume that the district court of appeal boundaries will remain unchanged.”

The order sets a December 1 deadline for the committee to forward its recommendations to the court. Lawmakers convene the next regular session in January.

State attorneys, public defenders, legislators, lawyers, and community activists lined up for hours to express their opposition to consolidation when the committee held a public hearing in Orlando last month.

At last week’s meeting, Gerber noted that the committee is still compiling survey results.

The assessment committee prepared two online surveys, one for members of the public and another for “court, government and legal professionals.”

The Florida Bar emailed a survey to all its members at the request of the assessment committee and promoted it on social media. Chief judges shared them with their respective judges and court staff, and the Office of State Courts Administrator distributed surveys to a “sampling of government agencies, professional associations, and similar organizations and legal providers,” committee records show.

A September 1 deadline for completing the surveys was extended three days to accommodate disruptions attributed to Hurricane Idalia.

The committee received 4,818 court, government and legal professional surveys, records show. Of those respondents, 41% — 1,995 — identified themselves as a “private attorney.”

Of those same respondents, 37% — 1,795 — said they “strongly agree” that their judicial circuit “expedites appropriate cases.” Just 3.4% said they “strongly disagree.”

Nearly 34% — 1,634 — of the respondents said they “strongly agree” that their judicial circuit handles its workload “in a manner permitting its judges to prepare written decisions when warranted.” Just 4.8% said they “strongly disagree.”

Another 37.6% said they “strongly agree” that the judicial circuit is “capable of accommodating changes in statutes or case law impacting workload or court operations.” Just 6.1% said they “strongly disagree.”

The committee received 2,087 surveys from members of the public. However, staff was quick to note that 71% of those —1,490 — were from respondents who indicated they were served by the 16th Judicial Circuit, which consists of just Monroe County.

Committee member Laird Lile, a Naples attorney who serves on the Board of Governors, said he was concerned that the high concentration of Monroe County responses will cloud any interpretation of statewide results.

Dustin Metz, a senior attorney with the Office of State Courts Administrator, said there were ways to compensate.

“That definitely skews the statewide results,” Metz said. “But we can break them down by circuit.”

Due to the high volume, committee staff won’t be able to compile responses to “open-ended” survey questions until the next committee meeting on September 29, Gerber said.

The committee has begun compiling data that would help gauge how consolidation would impact judicial circuits based on criterion and factors identified in Rule 2.241.

For example, Rule 2.241 (c)(1) “Effectiveness,” lists four factors to be considered, including “expedites appropriate cases,” “handles its cases in a manner permitting its judges to prepare written decisions when warranted,” and “is capable of accommodating changes in statutes or case law impacting workload or court operations.”

To measure those factors, the committee is compiling case closure rates for circuit criminal and circuit civil — including family law and probate cases — and county criminal and county civil.

Meanwhile, 20th Judicial Circuit Judge Margaret Steinbeck said the Fiscal and Resource Subcommittee that she chairs has designed another analytical framework.

“The plan is to give the full committee a statewide, collective analysis of what the potential fiscal impact would be for consolidation,” she said. “The fiscal impact would vary greatly depending on which circuits are targeted for consolidation.”

The subcommittee is leaving no stone unturned, Steinbeck assured.

It has reached out to the Justice Administration Commission, Department of Children and Families, Department of Juvenile Justice, Department of Corrections, the Florida Highway Patrol, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, to name a few, Steinbeck said.

“We are trying to consider the broad universe,” she said.

Meanwhile, the committee will receive public comments a second and final time on Friday, October 13, Gerber said.

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