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Committee doubles down on recommendation against circuit consolidation

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Florida's 20 Judicial Circuits

Florida’s 20 Judicial Circuits

The Judicial Circuit Assessment Committee on November 17 chose to strengthen its recommendation against circuit consolidation, and to highlight the significant level of public engagement that helped the members reach their conclusion.

The committee met to discuss the 31-page draft report and agree on the changes. The members will vote on a final version on Wednesday, November 29, and will submit that report to the Florida Supreme Court on December 1. (Editor’s Note: Here is a link to the final report submitted to court.)

About 40-minutes into the two-hour discussion, panel member Fourth Circuit State Attorney Melissa Nelson said they needed to state more clearly in the report that there was no basis for consolidation.

Page four of the draft report’s executive summary reads: “The Committee did not identify a significant justification to support consolidation, and instead observed significant opposition to consolidation.”

Nelson suggested they change the first reference to “significant” modifying “justification.”

“I don’t think we heard evidence at all of a compelling need for consolidation,” Nelson said. “I think that should read, “The Committee did not identify any justification.”

11th Circuit Public Defender Carlos Martinez and Broward County Judge Robert Lee both shared Nelson’s point of view regarding the lack of evidence for consolidation.

“I 100% agree,” said Martinez. “And that was really going to be my key comment for the whole report.”

“I likewise agree that the word ‘significant’ should not be there,” said Lee. He then suggested going beyond Nelson’s edit to soften the report’s summary statement about the benefits to consolidation.

Lee specifically wanted to include the word “some” before “potential” in the following sentence so that it would now read (change in bold): “Further, although the Committee noted some potential benefits of consolidation, such as greater uniformity, the Committee ultimately determined that, on balance, less disruptive adjustments would address operational challenges and concerns in the judicial circuits more effectively than consolidation.”

“There really weren’t many. And they weren’t significant,” Judge Lee said about the potential benefits of consolidation. “So, I felt that a modifier such as ‘some’ needed to carry the tone there a little bit better.”

But 12th Circuit Chief Judge Diana Moreland cast doubt on even the benefit of uniformity.

“People think that if we make a change within the circuit, somehow, we make a change that controls everything in the circuit. And we are very much not in control of every county that’s in our circuit,” said Moreland, including how clerks of court in those counties “run their offices.”

“Consolidation wouldn’t change that at all,” Moreland said. “It’s a misconception more than anything.”

Nelson also said during the draft discussion that she wanted the report to highlight even more how many Floridians weighed in on the committee’s consolidation review.

“As I understand it, from staff, this level of public engagement was very significant,” Nelson said. “Not only was the public engagement broad, and obviously deep, but obviously the opposition that we heard to the notion of consolidation was as well.”

Twentieth Circuit Judge Margaret Steinbeck backed Nelson’s comment.

“I definitely think the level of engagement was significant. In my experience, in working on various activities, it may be unprecedented,” said Steinbeck. “It wasn’t just a significant number of responses to the surveys or the public comment, it was really across the board.”

Steinbeck said she wanted to feature in the report how they received over 7,000 survey responses because “the number is pretty dramatic.”

The committee heard significant pushback in public hearings on the consolidation proposal initiated by Florida House Speaker Paul Renner. And it received 184 written comments on the matter, per the draft; 157 were against consolidation, 25 didn’t take a position, and just two were in favor of it.

The advisory group also discussed breaking out its findings according to the criteria governing the panel’s judicial circuit review under Rules 2.240 and 2.241.

Rule 2.240 refers to “factors regularly considered in determining the need for additional judges,” per the draft report, and includes “some biggies,” like the circuit’s geographic size or its resources, which should get more emphasis in the report, said Judge Keith Carsten from the Ninth Circuit.

Rule 2.241 has six different metrics when evaluating changing judicial circuits: effectiveness, efficiency, access to courts, professionalism, public trust, and confidence.

“When we’re talking about the criterion of efficiency or effectiveness, we don’t speak to public trust,” Nelson said. “And I think we should. We heard a lot from a lot of different people across the state that they believed that consolidation would undermine public trust and confidence.”

Regarding the cost of consolidation, the draft report states that it would have an “overall estimated neutral or no fiscal impact as it relates to the work of the trial courts, clerks, and other justice entities,” which Seventh Circuit Judge Chris Kelly wanted to clarify was referring only to the “long term.”

“Any kind of transition would have a greater fiscal impact, at least initially,” said Kelly.

Kelly also said that he had received several emails stating concerns that the committee was recommending that St. John’s County be moved from his circuit to the Fourth, which wasn’t true.

Fourth District Court of Appeal Judge Jonathan Gerber, who chairs the committee, agreed.

“We never made any such comment,” said Gerber, who said the committee wasn’t recommending any circuit changes for any Florida county. “Those concerns are just not accurate.”

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