District Court of Appeal Workload and Jurisdiction Assessment Committee takes comments
Florida’s five district courts are functioning well, and the public appears to be satisfied with their current configuration.
That’s the bulk of the evidence presented to the District Court of Appeal Workload and Jurisdiction Assessment Committee at a recent public hearing in Orlando.
Former Third District Court of Appeal Chief Judge Frank A. Shepherd told the panel that the appellate district contours haven’t changed since the Legislature added the Fifth DCA in 1980, or since the last assessment was performed 15 years ago, and that’s a good sign.
“The system we have, I think, is really very good,” he said. “When you find a good thing, drive it into the ground, folks.”
Chaired by Third DCA Judge Ed Scales, the committee is made up of trial and appellate judges, a former Supreme Court justice, two Florida Bar Board of Governors members, a public defender and a state attorney, and what Judge Scales described as a “very diverse group of private practitioners.”
In a May 6 order, Chief Justice Charles Canady directed the committee to “evaluate the necessity for increasing, decreasing or redefining the appellate districts.” The order requires the committee confer with chief judges, “and other representatives of the courts, court budget commissions, The Florida Bar, and the public.”
In addition to compiling workload and performance data, the committee has also surveyed various stakeholders, including the state’s 64 district courts of appeal judges and chief judges. However, a survey of litigants remains open through July 24.
The committee has much to study. Like Florida, the state’s DCAs are diverse and vary widely in terms of number of judges, case filings, and population.
According to data compiled by the Office of State Courts Administrator, in FY 2018-2019, the First District Court of Appeal’s 15 judges handled 4,974 filings, and the Third District Court of Appeal’s 10 judges handled 2,590 filings. The same year, the Second DCA was home to 5.9 million residents and the Third DCA, 2.8 million. The Third District Court of Appeal encompasses just two judicial circuits, the First DCA encompasses six.
The committee has a September 30 deadline to report back to the Supreme Court, giving it four months to complete its work, or less than half the time granted to its predecessor 15 years ago, Judge Scales noted.
“While there is a need to move quickly, the chief justice and the Supreme Court have stressed the need for transparency,” Judge Scales said.
Before listening to the public comments, Judge Scales stressed that the panel would not discuss individual cases and focus instead on its core mission.
Pursuant to Florida Rule of General Practice and Judicial Administration 2.241, the committee is required to assess the appellate court system based on five criteria – efficiency, effectiveness, access to appellate review, professionalism, and public trust and confidence in the appellate system.
In addition to Shepherd, several members of the public registered to appear, some of them via videoconference.
Candice K. Brower, regional counsel with the Office of Criminal Conflict and Civil Regional Counsel in the First DCA region, said she had no specific concerns, but merely wanted to monitor the committee’s work.
“Changing the appellate districts would have a direct impact on the regional counsel districts, because we mirror them exactly,” she said. “Just to make sure that it’s not forgotten that a lot of other things would change as well.”
Judge Scales asked Brower if any one of the First District’s judicial circuits was “overrepresented” in her workload.
“Do you have more cases out of the Fourth?” he asked. “Do you have more cases out of the First? What’s the breakdown from your workload perspective?”
Brower noted that in addition to criminal cases, regional counsel also handle juvenile, dependency, guardianships, and Marchman Act cases, so it’s “a mixed bag.”
“It is probably one of the most diverse regions, given that we have 32 counties and six circuits, most of which are rural, but the populated areas are very populated,” she said.
Jacksonville has higher caseloads, but they are concentrated in one place and require less travel, she said.
“And then you have places like the Eighth Circuit, where Gainesville is populated, but not as populated as Jacksonville, so you have people traveling to all of the other six counties in that circuit,” she said.
Pensacola generates high caseloads as well, Brower said, but they also tend to be concentrated in the urban area.
“But given that we handle so many different types of cases…there’s always something for our attorneys to take on,” she said.
Judge Scales asked Brower if she would change the First District’s jurisdictional boundaries, but Brower said she wasn’t prepared to make a recommendation.
“We staff where we are needed and follow that,” she said. “If it’s redistricted, I would suggest keeping offices like ours the same, if possible, because we’ve become used to handling this area.”
Committee member Michael Orr, who is also a Florida Bar board member, asked Shepherd if the addition of the Fifth District Court of Appeal was disruptive.
“Do you have any information or experience to offer, what the sense of the legal community was at that time…and whether or not that was seen as having an adverse impact on the legal community?” Orr said.
Shepherd said the birth of the newest appellate district was largely a function of population growth.
“There’s always questions about where the headquarters are going to be,” Shepherd said. “But I don’t recall there being a huge controversy.”
After the public hearing, and brief recess, the committee reconvened to discuss the public comments and review the more than 1,600 survey responses it received, including an ongoing survey of prison inmates, most of whom are self-represented.
More meetings are planned for August and September.