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District Court of Appeal workgroup suggests a retooling of the state’s DCAs

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Florida's current District Court of AppealsAfter a five-month review, a Supreme Court committee is recommending adding one or more district courts of appeal, which could include reassigning some circuits to different DCAs.

The District Court of Appeal Workload and Jurisdiction Assessment Committee’s September 30 report found that DCAs are generally performing well but added at least one new DCA would better promote “public trust and confidence.”

“Specifically, an additional DCA would help provide adequate access to oral arguments and other proceedings, foster public trust and confidence based on geography and demographic composition, and help attract a diverse group of well-qualified applicants for judicial vacancies, including applicants from all circuits within each district.”

The 15-member panel is chaired by Third District Court of Appeal Judge Edward Scales III and includes Florida Bar Board of Governors members Sia Baker-Barnes and Michael Orr, a former Supreme Court justice, a former chief judge of the 11th Circuit, a state attorney and public defender, and a diverse group of private practitioners.

The committee is geographically balanced, with each of the five DCA regions represented by three members.

Chief Justice Charles Canady created the committee in a May 6 order, In re: District Court of Appeal Workload and Jurisdiction Assessment Committee, Fla. Admin. Order No. AOSC21-13, issued in accordance with Florida Rule of General Practice and Judicial Administration 2.241.

The committee’s primary mission was to “evaluate the necessity for increasing, decreasing, or redefining the appellate districts.”

The rule criteria for evaluating the DCAs include “effectiveness, efficiency, access to appellate review, professionalism, and public trust and confidence.”

The report notes that a minority disagreed with the recommendation.

“These members state that the data the Committee reviewed, when applied to the five criteria prescribed in Rule 2.241, does not establish a need to change the boundaries of the existing DCAs,” the report states.

In a comment section, the minority pointed to survey results “reflecting generally high satisfaction with access to appellate review.”

Among other things, the minority also noted that “population increases do not equate to filings as indicated by the recent decline in filings, and thus do not provide a basis for creating an additional DCA.”

Due to this year’s early start to the legislative session — January 11 — the committee had only five months to complete its work — nearly half the nine months given to a predecessor committee that preformed a similar review in 2006. That panel, the report notes, did not recommend reassigning circuits or adding another DCA.

The last time a new DCA was created in Florida was 1979, when lawmakers approved adding the Fifth DCA in Daytona Beach, according to the report.

The most recent committee met six times, held a public hearing, studied a trove of statistical data, and conducted a DCA judge survey, a non-appellate judge and attorney survey, a litigant survey, and a survey of Department of Corrections inmates.

“As it relates to effectiveness and efficiency, district court filings and weighted judicial workload showed a general decline in the last five years, and clearance rates and the number of pending cases showed largely favorable trends during that same period,” the report states.

The committee’s statistical review showed DCA case filings declined from 23,730 to 17,785 during a five-year period between FY 2015-16 and FY 2019-20.

Total case filings per judge experienced a similar decline over the same period, from 370.8 to 277.9, according to the report.

Statewide clearance rates remained above 100% for each of the same five years, according to the report, and average pending cases per month declined each year, from 15,322 to 12,233, over the same five-year period.

Also, over the same five-year period, the percentage of cases resolved within 180 days of oral argument has been between 92% and 98% for criminal and non-criminal cases, “which generally falls within the standard established by the Florida Supreme Court,” the report notes.

“Although this statistic reflects that Florida’s district courts have performed well in the area of efficiency, with the addition of a DCA and the realignment of certain jurisdictional boundaries, the district courts could perhaps perform better,” the report notes.

A review of judicial residency and demographic information showed that in the First DCA, 13 of 15 judges reside in Leon County.

The Second DCA has judges residing in Pinellas, Polk, Pasco and Manatee and Hillsborough counties, but eight of 16 judges reside in Hillsborough, according to the report. In the Third DCA, nine of 10 judges reside in Miami-Dade County.

The Fourth DCA has judges residing in Palm Beach, Broward, St. Lucie, and Martin counties, but six of its 12 judges live in Palm Beach County, the report shows.

The Fifth DCA has judges residing in Marion, Orange, Seminole, and Brevard counties, but six of its 11 judges reside in Orange County, according to the report.

The same review found that “the majority of the 64 sitting DCA judges identified as white males.”

After nine of 14 committee members — the chair abstained — voted to recommend reassigning circuits to different districts, the committee considered a number of proposed configurations, according to the report.

The same nine members voted for various scenarios, with a plurality, seven, approving a proposal in which:

• The Fourth Judicial Circuit would move from the First DCA into the Fifth DCA;

• The Ninth Judicial Circuit would move from the Fifth DCA into the Second DCA, comprised of the Ninth, 10th, and 20th judicial circuits; and

• The Sixth, 13th, and 12th judicial circuits would move from the Second DCA to comprise a sixth DCA.

The proposal assumes maintaining the same number of DCA judges, and that the number of judges would increase or decrease over time.

“Some members of the Committee believed that realigning appellate districts may encourage gender balance, racial/ethnic balance, and workload balance,” the report states.

The committee considered a host of arguments for creating one or more DCAs, according to the report, including, “having additional DCAs would help the state prepare for continued population growth, as well as respond to increased complexity of cases and expansion of the law.”

The committee considered a concern that some DCAs may already be too large, which limits the ability of practitioners to know the judges, according to the report.

“Although there is not a ‘magic’ size for a court, having additional DCAs with potentially fewer judges on each court would contribute to effectiveness by promoting collegiality among the judges and promote consistency in opinions and the expediting of appropriate cases,” the report states.

The committee also considered that a more compact configuration of DCAs could lead to a recruitment of applicants for vacancies from all circuits within a given district, as well as encourage a qualified and diverse applicant pool.

“The perception of fairness is increased by having greater judicial representation among all of the circuits in a given DCA,” the report states.

However, in their comments, the minority noted, “The extent to which judicial circuits are represented among the residency of the existing DCA judges is a factor of gubernatorial appointment rather than the diversity of the applicant pool for judicial vacancies.”

The committee did not offer specific recommendations on the manner in which the creation of one or more DCAs should be implemented, “deferring to the Supreme Court and, ultimately, the Legislature,” the report states.

However, the committee “supports minimizing disruption and not requiring existing judges to change residences.”

“In fact, the Committee recommends that no existing DCA judge’s position be decertified while that judge is in office, and no existing DCA judge have to change residence in order to remain in office.”

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