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Circuit consolidation draws more opposition

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But the committee heard from a handful of speakers who supported consolidation at its last public hearing

Florida's 20 Judicial Circuits

Florida’s 20 Judicial Circuits

Judges, state attorneys, and public defenders continued to urge a Supreme Court panel on October 13 not to consolidate Florida’s judicial circuits.

Most opponents who appeared in the George Edgecomb Courthouse in Tampa, or via Zoom, pointed to the committee’s own surveys that suggest consolidation would not improve court efficiency or save taxpayer dollars.

“If consolidation were a case in a court of law, it would be dismissed for lack of evidence,” said 19th Circuit Public Defender Diamond Litty, a 30-year veteran. “Just say no.”

Florida Prosecuting Attorney’s Association President Jack Campbell said he has never seen elected state attorneys and public defenders so strongly united.

“That’s a thousand years of legal experience,” he said. “I’m going to make a motion I’ve never made. It’s time for a JOA [judgment on acquittal].”

The Judicial Circuit Assessment Committee was conducting a second and final public hearing. Despite a December 1 deadline to make final recommendations, Fourth District Court of Appeal Judge Jonathan Gerber, the committee chair, said he would postpone deliberations that were scheduled for later in the day so the committee could hear from all the witnesses.

Unlike an August 25 public hearing in Orlando, the committee heard from a handful of speakers who supported consolidation.

Kansas Gooden, a Miami attorney who is board certified in appellate practice, suggested consolidation would remedy wide disparities in caseloads and the availability of hearing times between some circuits.

“This causes tremendous strain on the parties, particularly with the case management order,” Gooden said.

JCAC member Laird Lile, a Naples attorney who also serves on the Florida Bar Board of Governors, asked: “Do you think that there are any other remedies that could be implemented that would be less drastic than consolidation?”

Gooden acknowledged that more judges would help, but she said court resources can only be stretched so far.

“I think consolidation would be a way to create resources for some of these smaller counties, by combining them,” she said.

Former Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp, an attorney who serves as executive vice president of Florida Tax Watch, said judicial circuit boundaries should be reviewed every 10 or 20 years and suggested that the reviews might determine that more circuits are needed.

“It’s entirely appropriate to assess if change is needed,” Kottkamp said. “Are we providing equal access to justice for the citizens of Florida, that really has to drive your decision.”

Chief Justice Carlos Muñiz created the Judicial Circuit Assessment Committee on June 30. His administrative order directs it to consider whether consolidation of circuits, within existing district court of appeal boundaries, is warranted.

The order was prompted by a letter from House Speaker Paul Renner, a Palm Coast attorney. Renner suggested consolidation, through “economies of scale in back-office operations,” could generate “substantial cost savings.”

Renner noted that the current circuit boundaries have been in place since 1969, “notwithstanding the significant population and demographic changes of the past 50 years.”

“Without expressing any view on the merits at this time, the Court agrees that the question of whether there is a need to consolidate Florida’s judicial circuits deserves thoughtful consideration and careful study,” Muñiz wrote in the order.

The process is governed by Florida Rule of General Practice and Judicial Administration 2.241 (Determination of the Necessity to Increase, Decrease, or Redefine Judicial Circuits and Appellate Courts).

A similar assessment committee recommended creating a new Sixth District Court of Appeal last year.

The rule requires recommendations to be based on six factors, including whether a change would increase “public trust and confidence” in the courts. The others are effectiveness, efficiency, access to courts, professionalism, and additional criteria considered when determining the need for additional judges.

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