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Court asks for a new Lake County judge

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Florida courtsThe Supreme Court is asking for one new county court judge for Lake County in its annual certification opinion. The court is seeking no additional circuit judges.

The court released its annual certification opinion November 24. The Florida Constitution requires the court to set a procedure to determine the need for new judges or decertifying existing seats.

The court addressed the need for additional appellate judges in a separate opinion. Saying it would “significantly improve the judicial process,” the Supreme Court is recommending the creation of a sixth district court of appeal and adjusting the boundaries of the First, Second, and Fifth DCAs. (See story, here.) If the Legislature agrees, it would be the first time since 1979 that Florida has created a new district court of appeal.

In certifying the need for new judges, the court relies on a “verified objective” weighted caseload methodology, supplemented by judgeship requests submitted by the trial courts.

“Applying the criteria in this two-step methodology, we conclude that Lake County has a demonstrable need for an additional county court judgeship,” the unanimous court said.

Considered in isolation, the court noted the two-step analysis also suggested the decertification of two county court judgeships in Brevard County and one county court judgeship each in Alachua, Citrus, Collier, and Monroe counties.

However, the court said the “significant workload and operational challenges and the uncertainty” facing the trial courts due to the backlog of cases created by the pandemic and recent monetary jurisdiction change in county court weigh against decertification of any trial court judgeships at this time.

“Over the course of the last year and a half, trial courts have adapted court operations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic to keep courts open and continue to provide for the resolution of disputes,” the court said. “Despite the trial courts’ efforts to leverage remote appearance technology and employ innovative solutions to hear cases, an increase in pending workload is currently affecting the courts as they resume normal operations.”

The court said the monetary jurisdiction change in county court from $15,000 to $30,000 is an additional issue limiting its ability to accurately project judicial need.

“This initial jurisdictional change, however, largely coincided with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it is not yet possible to determine precisely how this statutory revision will affect workload among the tiers of court.”

The impending county court jurisdictional increase to $50,000 in 2023 is also expected to significantly increase the number of cases heard in county court — as is the recent transfer of circuit court authority to hear appeals from county court final orders and judgments in criminal misdemeanor cases and most civil cases to the district courts of appeal.

A year ago, lawmakers funded 10 new judgeships.