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Bill raising county court civil jurisdiction passes second House panel

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'The circuit courts are way too congested'

Two House subcommittees have now approved a bill that raises the civil jurisdiction in county courts to levels proposed in Senate legislation.

Rep. BeltranThe House Civil Justice Subcommittee on March 20 passed an amended HB 337 which would raise county court jurisdiction as of July 1 from $15,000 — set by the Legislature in 1992 — to $30,000 and then up in again in two years to $50,000. That tracks language in SB 328, which passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in February.

The bill also contains a provision allowing Supreme Court justices to maintain chambers near their homes instead of moving to Tallahassee.

The Justice Appropriations Committee passed the bill on April 2. It now goes to the full Judiciary Committee.

However, the Senate bill, with the session half over, still has three committee reviews left.

“The main policy in this, which is to raise the jurisdiction of the county courts, is sensible and long overdue,” said Rep. Mike Beltran, R-Valrico at the March 20 meeting. “The circuit courts are way too congested, I can tell you that from personal experience.”

However, he and Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, expressed reservations about a section of the bill that would allow defendants to challenge, after a case was filed, whether it was filed in the proper trial court.

The bill grants an automatic hearing to the defendant who asks for it and requires the plaintiff to “demonstrate, by a preponderance of the evidence, a reasonable likelihood of recovering at least the amount alleged in the complaint.” If the plaintiff fails, then the judge must transfer the case to the “appropriate court.”

“We’re going to require a prehearing before that trial on the issues that are going to be tried. I’m concerned about the plaintiff’s ability . . .  to lay all this out at an evidentiary hearing before discovery has taken place,” Diamond said.

At the April 2 meeting, 10th Circuit Judge John Stargel, representing the court system, asked the lawmakers to delay any action until a Supreme Court workgroup studying how the jurisdiction increase would affect appeals to circuit courts from county court decisions.

Some speakers have expressed concerns that circuit courts won’t have the resources to handle the expected increase in appeals from the higher county court caseloads. Those concerned included Diamond.

“In my circuit, it takes a while to get a hearing with a circuit judge,” he said at the March 20 meeting. “Circuit judges are really busy and the idea they’re now going to be in there writing more appellate decisions without a lot of support is something that we really have to think about.”

Rep. Tom Leek, R-Daytona Beach, the bill’s sponsor, replied that he is still working on the appellate issue and expects to address that in future committee meetings.

The bill originally raised the county court jurisdiction limit to $75,000, but Leek offered an amendment at the Civil Justice Subcommittee to adopt the limits contained in SB 328.

“This bill doesn’t result in more cases coming into the system, it just rebalances the workload from what we have,” Leek said.

The Supreme Court last year studied county court civil jurisdiction and its workgroup recommended raising the threshold to just over $27,000 and the court then endorsed its proposal to round that down to $25,000. Bill sponsors decided to round the $27,000 figure up to $30,000, and then after two years boost it again to $50,000.

Not in the House bill was a provision in the Senate legislation exempting suits involving insurance coverage from the higher county court jurisdiction limits. Nor did the House bill have the Senate provision refunding trial court judges filing fees if they filed for election or reelection and wound up unopposed. The House bill also does not have a Senate section that addresses courtroom security and the roles of sheriffs, chief judges, and county commissions, although it has a separate bill on that issue (which also passed the Justice Appropriations Subcommittee on April 2.

The Supreme Court workgroup that looked at the county court jurisdiction level estimated if the limit were raised to $25,000, 7.4 percent of cases now going to circuit court would instead wind up in county court. At $50,000, that figure jumped to 25.9 percent.