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Board of Governors to comment on circuit consolidation study

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Board also authorizes a committee to proceed with a request for a ethics opinion offering lawyers guidance on the use of AI

Scott Westheimer

Scott Westheimer

The Board of Governors agreed Thursday to issue a comment to a Supreme Court panel that is weighing the potential consolidation of Florida judicial circuits.

A Florida Bar comment will be forwarded by October 13, when the Judicial Circuit Assessment Committee holds a public hearing in Tampa and begins its final deliberations.

“Our decision is a little more expedited than we had first discussed,” said President Scott Westheimer. “If we wait too long, we risk getting it to them after they’ve already made their decision.”

The JCAC is facing a December 1 deadline to report its recommendations to the Supreme Court.

The Florida Bar comment will refer to JCAC surveys that suggest most Florida lawyers oppose consolidation and recommend alternatives for making judicial circuits more effective and efficient.

“We’re addressing the charge to the [Judicial Circuit Assessment Committee] about consolidation, but we’re also giving input on other things that could be done instead,” Westheimer said.

Examples of alternatives will include such things as more aggressive case management, more court clerk personnel, and greater use of technology, Westheimer said.

Jeremy Branning“A lot that involves funding, frankly, providing the bench with sufficient support that enables judges to do what they are being asked to do,” said board member Jeremy Branning.

Branning serves on a board task force that Westheimer appointed earlier this summer to study the potential for commenting on consolidation. Other members include Greg Weiss, Jay Kim, Paige Greenlee, and Young Lawyers Division President Anisha Patel.

Sia Baker-Barnes

Sia Baker-Barnes

Legislation Committee Chair Sia Baker-Barnes, who monitored the task force, said the comment will avoid any hint of partisan politics.

“Our role, I think from the Bar’s perspective, is to simply provide data, and that includes the survey results, and focusing on the factors set forth in the court’s order.”

Chief Justice Carlos Muñiz appointed the JCAC after House Speaker Paul Renner wrote to the justices in June and suggested that consolidation could promote greater efficiency. Renner noted that judicial 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.”

The chief justice noted that Rule of General Practice and Judicial Administration 2.241, which governs the realignment process, requires the court to also weigh “less disruptive means.”

Administrative Order AOSC23-35, In Re: Judicial Circuit Assessment Committee, directs the panel, among other things, to limit any 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.”

A similar assessment committee, operating under court Rule 2.241, last year recommended that Florida create a Sixth District Court of Appeal. Based in Lakeland, Florida’s first new state appellate court since 1979 began hearing cases in January.

At an August JCAC public hearing in Orlando, judges, lawmakers, lawyers, and community activists lined up for hours to express their opposition to consolidation. None of the witnesses who addressed the committee that day spoke in support of consolidation.

Florida chief judges, the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, and the Florida Public Defender Association, oppose consolidation.

In other business on Thursday, the Board of Governors voted to authorize the Special Committee on AI Tools & Resources to post a notice for public comment in the November issue of the Bar News.

The unanimous vote authorizes the special committee to proceed with a request for a Florida Bar Ethics Opinion that would offer lawyers guidance on the use of the rapidly evolving technology in their practices. The special committee is considering seven questions, including:

  • “Is a lawyer required to obtain a client’s informed consent as a condition of using generative AI (g., Chat GPT,) in the course of the client’s representation?”
  • “What conditions may apply to a lawyer’s duty to charge a reasonable fee when the lawyer utilizes generative AI or other similar large language model- based technology in providing professional services?”
  • “Can a law firm claim/advertise its private or in-house generative AI technology is superior or unique in some objective manner versus other law firms?”
  • “Can a client instruct a lawyer to generate and rely upon a due diligence report solely created by generative AI technology? If so, how should the lawyer document this instruction so the client is cautioned on the risks involved?”

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