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Court calls for eight new circuit and county judges

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Florida needs four new circuit judges and four new county judges — all in Hillsborough County — but requires two fewer county court judges in Brevard County and one less in Pasco County.

Two of the new circuit judges are needed in the Ninth Circuit and one each in the First and 14th circuits, the court said in its annual certification opinion to the Legislature.

The December 28 per curiam opinion said no new judges are needed on the district courts of appeal.

The court looked at its normal “verified objective weighted caseload methodology” along with local factors identified by various circuit chief judges in making the recommendations. Those latter factors were taken into account in the request for more judges or not to decertify existing judgeships, the court said.

The opinion came about 10 days before the Legislature began its substantive committee work on the week of January 7, preparing for the start of the regular session on March 5.

Unlike last year, the judgeships recommended for decertification did not outnumber the requested number of new judges. Then the court recommended 13 fewer county judgeships while it called for two new circuit judgeships (both in the Ninth Circuit) and two new county seats (both in Hillsborough County). That was the first time since Florida courts were reorganized in 1972 that the court had called for reducing the number of trial judges.

In its 2016 certification opinion, the court called for four new circuit judges and eight additional county judges in various counties, but also decertifyed six county judgeships in other counties — the first time in at least decades that the court recommended decertifying judgeships.

The court said this year, several factors required additional consideration, including the court’s and Legislature’s studies of modifying county court jurisdictional limits. On November 30, a workgroup of the court’s Judicial Management Council submitted a county court jurisdiction report, and justices are reviewing that, according to the opinion.

“Given the recent interest by the Florida Legislature in adjusting county court jurisdiction, it is possible county court jurisdiction thresholds for civil cases, the procedures and path for appeals in certain cases, and small claims jurisdiction amounts may be adjusted,” the court said. “Precise estimates of how these changes would affect objective measures are challenging when considered individually and more so when multiple adjustments are contemplated. Any of the changes can reasonably be expected to shift workload in county, circuit, and appellate courts.”

Changes in state law have affected court workloads, including last year’s gun control law that allows a risk protection order to remove firearms from people deemed to be at high risk of harming themselves or others. The state’s vulnerable adult injunction law (F.S. §825.1025) also affects workload, the opinion said.

“Similarly, with the growth of problem-solving courts [drug, veterans, mental health, and similar specialty venues] throughout the state and the increased number of cases handled by those problem-solving courts, it is important for this Court, in its consideration of assessment of judicial need, to evaluate the impact to judicial workload these courts create. While these courts show positive results in reduced recidivism and better outcomes for citizens, they also require significantly more judicial time,” the court said.

The Supreme Court is also looking at the way it measures judicial workloads and performance, and the opinion noted the Commission on Trial Court Performance and Accountability has been ordered to review Rules of Judicial Administration related to courtroom workloads.

“Finally, we note a need to monitor and consider any increases in litigation in the storm-impacted areas of the state, especially indebtedness and contract cases associated with Hurricane Irma in 2017 and Hurricane Michael in October 2018,” the court said.

The Legislature has generally not acted on the court’s recent certification requests. It has not approved any new trial court judgeships since 2007 although it added three DCA judges in the 2014-15 fiscal year. It has not decertified any of the judicial positions recommended by the court. Florida currently has 64 authorized DCA judgeships, 599 circuit judgeships, and 322 county court judgeships.

The court acted in In re: Certification of Need for Additional Judges, Case No. SC18-1970.